Scouting The Free Agent Market: James Shields

(Jamie Squire/Getty)
(Jamie Squire/Getty)

Now that the Yankees know their dominant bullpen will feature only two elite relievers rather than three, the focus turns to the rotation, which needs quite a bit of help given all the injury concerns. The idea of relying on the Dellin Betances-Andrew Miller tandem in the late innings only works if the starter can get through the first six or seven innings, and right now I’m not sure if the Yankees have anyone capable of doing that.

Behind Max Scherzer and Jon Lester, the consensus third best pitcher on the free agent market this winter is ex-Rays right-hander James Shields. He’s older than Scherzer and Lester but is still outstanding and will command a hefty contract. Shields is also a top of the line workhorse and the Yankees sure could use someone they could count on for innings. Let’s see if he makes sense for New York given their pitching situation.

Consistently Excellent

Outside of an ugly 2010 season in which he was alarmingly homer prone (1.50 HR/9 and 13.8 HR/FB%), Shields has been outstanding these last few seasons. He was very good but not truly elite with the Rays from 2007-09 before that down 2010, but since them he’s been dynamite. Here are the stats:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
2010 249.1 2.82 3.42 23.1% 6.7% 46.2% 11.1% .286 .269
2011 227.2 3.52 3.47 23.6% 6.1% 52.3% 13.4% .286 .306
2012 228.2 3.15 3.47 20.7% 7.2% 41.6% 8.6% .331 .276
2013 227.0 3.21 3.59 19.2% 4.7% 45.2% 9.7% .310 .309
TOTAL 932.2 3.17 3.49 21.7% 6.2% 46.3% 10.6% .303 .290

Like I said, Shields has been consistently excellent since that ugly 2010 campaign. The declining strikeout rate is a red flag, especially since the league average strikeout rate continues to increase year after year, but there appears to be a perfectly valid non-decline explanation for the lack of strikeouts, which we’ll look at in the next section. Otherwise you’re getting everything you could want from a pitcher — innings, few walks, lots of grounders, no platoon split, the works. In summation: Shields definitely has a G Factor of 1.

Stuff Breakdown

Unlike Scherzer, Shields is not someone who will blow hitters away with high-end stuff. He doesn’t throw in the mid-90s, doesn’t buckle knees with a breaking ball, nothing like that. Shields succeeds because he throws five different pitches and consistently locates them in the lower third of the zone. In fact, among the 128 pitchers to throw at least 5,000 pitches over the last three seasons, Shields has 26th highest percentage of pitches in the lower third of the strike zone (and below) at 56.0%, according to Baseball Savant.

The strike zone continues to expand downward league-wide — this Jon Roegele post and this Jeff Sullivan post do a great job detailing recent strike zone expansion — so it’s easier to get a called strike at the knees (and below!) than ever before. Having the ability to keep the ball down like Shields is a great weapon. Nowadays hitters have to swing at these pitches to protect the plate and very few can hit balls that far down in the zone with authority. The result is a lot of weak contact and that’s a big reason why Shields is able to continually outperform his FIP.

As for his actual stuff, Shields does throw five pitches regularly, but his pitch selection did change a bit when he got to Kansas City two years ago. Check it out (via Brooks Baseball):

James Shields pitch selection

For whatever reason, Shields scaled back the usage of his changeup and curveball while with the Royals and instead ramped up the use of his cutter. The changeup was his go-to pitch for the early part of his career, he sold it extremely well (meaning it looked like a fastball out of his hand) and the pitch tumbled right off the table. It was devastating. The curveball is a good strikeout pitch in general. Certainly moreso than the cutter.

Fewer changeups and curveballs could explain why Shields’ strikeout rate has dropped the last two years, his only two with the Royals. Let’s look at the swing-and-miss rate of his five pitches over the last few years:

Four-Seamer Sinker Cutter Curveball Changeup
2011 3.8% 4.0% 6.7% 13.4% 22.1%
2012 5.3% 6.7% 8.4% 10.4% 21.6%
2013 5.6% 4.4% 9.8% 9.6% 20.5%
2014 6.0% 4.7% 11.1% 16.2% 18.6%
MLB AVG 6.9% 5.4% 9.7% 11.1% 14.9%

The changeup and curveball have been, by far, Shields’ best pitches for swings and misses over the last few years. The cutter is trending in the right direction and is it starting to catch up a bit, but there’s still a comfortable gap between that pitch and the other two. So this makes sense then, right? Shields has thrown more cutters but fewer changeups and curveballs during his two years in Kansas City, which is why his strikeout rate is down. We can’t really prove this but it certainly sounds plausible, doesn’t it?

I spent some time scouring the internet to try to figure out why exactly the Royals had Shields change his pitch selection — or whether he did it on his own — but came up empty. Maybe they wanted him to pitch to contact and get quick outs? Unless there’s some sort of underlying physical reason why he can’t throw his changeup or curveball as much anymore — I guess that if his elbow barking, it could explain fewer curveballs, but I’m not sure what would physically prevent a pitcher from throwing changeups — Shields should be able to use those pitches more in the future and boost his strikeout rate a few percentage points.

Otherwise Shields’ stuff has held up remarkably well over the years. In fact, his velocity increased this past season. Check it out:

James Shields velocity

Not often you see a soon-to-be 33-year-old pitcher add about seven-tenths of a mile an hour to his pitches, especially not when they’ve thrown as many innings as Shields. Hey, maybe throwing fewer changeups and curveballs allowed him to better build and maintain arm strength throughout the season. Who knows. Either way, Shields’ stuff is more than fine. No red flags here.

Big Workload & Injury History

Like I said, Shields has thrown a ton of innings so far in his career. He missed the entire 2002 season in the minors due to major shoulder surgery but has otherwise thrown at least 200 innings every year since 2007 and at least 220 innings in each of the last four years. The guy is a bonafide horse. Shields has taken the ball every fifth day and gone deep into games his entire career now. He’s never been hurt aside from that 2002 shoulder issue. It’s pretty remarkable.

Shields has thrown just short of 2,000 careers innings to date (1,910.1 to be exact), so I wanted to see how other recent pitchers with similar workloads fared later in their careers. Since 1990, 40 pitchers other than Shields threw at least 1,800 innings before the age of 33, and 26 of those 40 have finished their careers. Excluding Daryl Kile, the remaining 25 pitchers averaged 2,080.1 innings and 36.3 bWAR before their age 33 season. But, starting with their age 33 season, they averaged only 586.2 innings and 7.2 bWAR the rest of their careers. That’s scary. (Here’s my spreadsheet.)

Now, I think we can all agree Shields is more Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte than Jeff Suppan and Jaime Navarro, but what if he’s Brad Radke? Or Andy Benes? Those guys were workhorses earlier in their careers and completely done after 32. Like done done. Without warning too. What if he’s Barry Zito or Kevin Appier? Healthy enough to continue pitching but simply not any good? That’s the risk whichever team signs him is going to take.

Contract Estimates

The Royals did make Shields the qualifying offer, so he will cost a draft pick to sign, but that’s only a minor consideration when talking about a player of this caliber. No team will lose sleep over forfeiting a pick to sign a high-end starter. Here are some contract estimates from around the web.

The offseason has been very quiet for Shields so far. The same is true for Scherzer. It seems like everyone was waiting for Lester to come off the board before turning their attention to the rest of the pitching market. The Giants and Marlins are said to have some interest in Shields but that’s all right now. Check out his MLBTR archive if you don’t believe me.

I think Shields is going to wind up with something like five years and $100M, right in line with the estimates. That’s basically the A.J. Burnett and John Lackey contracts from a few years ago adjusted for inflation. He’s not young and there are a ton of miles on his arm, but he is excellent and would be a major short-term upgrade for a contending team. Whoever signs Shields will be focused on winning in 2015 and 2016, not worrying about how the deal will look in years four and five of the contract. He makes the most sense for a win now team, basically.

Wrapping Up

Between his performance, his stuff, and his injury, Shields carries no red flags whatsoever. The only concern is his career workload to date and the expectation that it will eventually catch up to him and he’ll break down. After everything that’s happened with CC Sabathia these last two years, it’s hard not to be concerned about Shields’ workload. (To be fair, Sabathia threw way more innings at a young age than Shields.)

Shields would help the Yankees the way he would help every team. There’s not a rotation in baseball that wouldn’t get better by adding him. The contract figures to be shorter than the massive pacts Lester and Scherzer will receive, but you’re also getting fewer of his theoretical prime years. After all, is seven years for 30-year-old Lester or Scherzer all that different than five years for 32-year-old Shields? You’re getting a similar chunk of his career minus some peak years. Shields offers AL East pedigree and is a reliable innings guy, so that alone makes him a good fit for New York. Whether the price is right is another matter.

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Scouting The Free Agent Market: Jason Grilli and Rafael Soriano

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

With both Andrew Miller and David Robertson now off the board, the free agent reliever market is starting to heat up. Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek agreed to deals with the Astros earlier today, Sergio Romo is in talks with several teams, and I’m sure many more relievers are drawing interest right now as well. The Yankees don’t absolutely need another reliever, but there’s always room in the bullpen for another quality late-inning arm.

Two of the more, shall we say, veteran relievers on the market are right-hander Jason Grilli and ex-Yankee Rafael Soriano. New York is said to be at least “monitoring” both guys. Both Grilli and Soriano are on the wrong side of 35 — well, Soriano turns 35 next week, so close enough — whose best days are likely behind them, but are still good enough to be assets in relief. Plus they both figure to come on short-term contracts. Is either a fit for the Yankees? Let’s look.

Recent Performance

Because they are older relievers on the downside of their careers, I think we’re better off focusing on what Grilli and Soriano did this past season moreso than the last two or three seasons and especially what they did earlier this careers. I don’t think what Soriano did in his first stint in New York tells us a whole lot about what he’ll do in 2015, for instance. That was a long time ago in reliever years. So here’s what these two did during the 2014 season:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% RHB wOBA LHB wOBA
Grilli 54.0 4.00 3.37 24.3% 8.9% 32.0% 6.5% 0.313 0.310
Soriano 62.0 3.19 3.08 23.4% 7.5% 31.6% 4.8% 0.297 0.273

Grilli had a pretty bad first half (3.95 ERA and 4.63 FIP) and a better second half (4.05 ERA and 2.08 FIP), at least when you look at things like strikeout and walk rates rather than runs allowed. Soriano was the opposite — he had a dynamite first half (0.97 ERA and 2.43 FIP) but a yucky  second half (6.48 ERA and 4.05 FIP). Both guys lost their closer’s jobs to ex-Yankees draft picks (Mark Melancon and Drew Storen) during the summer too.

Grilli and Soriano are very similar pitchers. They strike out an above-average number of hitters, walk about a league average number of hitters if not a tick more, and don’t get any ground balls. Instead of grounders they get a lot of weak pop-ups, which are actually preferable. Pop-ups are damn near automatic outs. A ridiculous 17.7% of Grilli’s fly balls last year were infield pops, and he’s consistently been over 14.0% infield pop-ups since resurfacing with the Pirates a few years ago. Soriano had a 7.7% infield pop-up rate in 2014 after sitting well over 12.0% from 2010-13.

Soriano’s decline in pop-up rate is not necessarily a sign of decline — he had a 12.0%+ pop-up rate from 2006-08, dipped down to 7.3% in 2009, then jumped right back up to 12.0%+ from 2010-13. It could just be one of those weird random baseball things. Like when Robinson Cano hit .271 in 2008 and .320 in 2009. Both Soriano and Grilli rely on pop-ups and strikeouts to get their outs, which is a really great strategy, though it is worth noting Grilli’s strikeout rate dropped quite a bit in 2014 while Soriano’s has been holding steady for a few years now:


Source: FanGraphsJason Grilli, Rafael Soriano

Grilli bounced around earlier of his career and didn’t turn into a stellar late-inning reliever until the 2011 season, when the Pirates gave him a shot. Since that 2011 season he’s been a strikeout machine, much moreso than Soriano. Even in 2014, in which Grilli’s strikeout rate dropped considerably, he still fanned more batters than Soriano. That said, it was still a significant drop. Grilli struck out 36.9% of batters faced in 2012, 36.6% in 2013, and 24.3% in 2014. Big drop.

Overall, Grilli and Soriano are very similar pitches who got different results this past season. Grilli’s declining strikeout rate is a red flag, moreso than Soriano’s drop in pop-up rate. They’ll both make you pull your hair out with walks from time to time too. Grilli was better than Soriano from 2012-13 (2.82 ERA and 2.42 FIP vs. 2.68 ERA and 3.48 FIP), but at his age I don’t think you can bank on 2012-13 Grilli coming back. The upside for both guys at this point of their careers is probably maintaining their 2014 performance in 2015 and not declining any. Obviously that seems more realistic for the soon-to-be 35-year-old Soriano than the 38-year-old Grilli.

Stuff Breakdown

Both Grilli and Soriano are fastball/slider guys, so this will be a pretty straight forward comparison. (Soriano threw a ton of cutters earlier in his career but has since scaled back on it big time.) Grilli’s fastball has consistently sat right around 93 mph since he returned to the show with Pittsburgh while Soriano’s has been gradually declining from 92.6 mph with the Yankees in 2012 to 91.5 mph with the Nationals in 2014. They both throw their sliders a lot, basically one-third of the time, and Soriano throws his in the mid-80s, a bit harder than Grilli’s low-80s offering.

Since they’re both fly ball pitchers, I’m not going to bother looking up the ground ball rates for their fastballs and sliders. Instead we’ll just focus on the swings and misses over the last few seasons:

Grilli FB Grilli SL Soriano FB Soriano SL
2012 14.9% 18.2% 10.9% 13.9%
2013 12.3% 20.9% 9.1% 13.7%
2014 10.3% 15.6% 13.6% 16.7%

The MLB average swing and miss rate for fastballs and sliders are approximately 6.9% and 15.2%, respectively. Grilli gets a ton of whiffs with both his fastball and slider, though they are trending in the wrong direction. Soriano has gotten an above-average amount of empty swings with his fastball but, up until the 2014 season, a below-average amount with his slider. Soriano’s swing and miss rates were better than Grilli’s in 2014 while Grilli’s were better than Soriano’s from 2012-13.

Given his age, it’s no real surprise Grilli wasn’t able to generate as many swings and misses this past season, and that’s a red flag. Chances are he’ll get even fewer swings and misses next season. Soriano’s whiff rates actually ticked upwards and that’s encouraging. Neither guy has a big platoon split — Soriano did last season but bounced back this season — so their fastballs and sliders work against batters on both sides of the plate. How much longer will that last?

Injury Histories

This is where it gets really ugly. Grilli had Tommy John surgery back in 2002 and missed the entire 2010 season with a torn quad. He missed two months with an elbow strain in 2003, three weeks with elbow inflammation in 2009, and six weeks with a flexor tendon strain in 2013. An oblique strain sidelined him for a month this past season. That’s a lot of elbow issues over the years. Grilli has thrown 50+ innings each year from 2012-14, the first and only other time he’s done that since 2006-08.

Soriano, meanwhile, just threw 50+ innings in three straight seasons for the first time in his career. He had Tommy John surgery way back in 2004 then needed another surgery to correct a nerve issue and remove a bone spur from his elbow in 2008, which caused him to miss most of the season. Soriano also missed three months with elbow inflammation while with the Yankees in 2011. His history of elbow problems is pretty severe, though aside from some shoulder fatigue and a concussion when he was hit by a comebacker, both back in 2006, he hasn’t had any other injury problems.

Both Grilli and Soriano have a long history of elbow problems and also of not staying healthy for extended periods of time. If they managed to throw 50+ innings in 2015, it’ll be the first time either guy throws that many innings in four straight seasons in their careers. Given their ages and injury histories, I’m not sure how reasonable it is to expect them to continue to stay on the field going forward. Not saying it can’t happen, just that there’s a risk factor.

Contract Estimates

Grilli has definitely reached the point in his career where he’ll have to go year to year to continue playing. No club is giving a just turned 38-year-old reliever multiple guaranteed years. Soriano, on the other hand, is still young enough and close enough to his best seasons that he might be able to secure a two-year pact. Here are some contract estimates:

  • FanGraphs Crowdsourcing: Two years, $14M for Soriano. (No results for Grilli.)
  • Jim Bowden (subs. req’d): Two years, $16M for Soriano. One year, $3.5M for Grilli.
  • Keith Law (subs. req’d): One year, $3M to $4M for Soriano. One year, $2M to $3M for Grilli.

KLaw seems to hate relievers, so I’m inclined to throw out his contract numbers for Soriano based on the other estimated. Based on FanGraphs and Bowden, Soriano’s looking at something like two years at $7.5M annually. Based on Bowden and Law, Grilli’s looking at a one-year deal at $3M or so. Those numbers make sense to me. Soriano’s deal would be similar to what the Padres gave Joaquin Benoit last year and Grilli’s deal would be in line with basically every late-career reliever contract in recent history.

Wrapping Up

At this point, with Robertson and Miller off the board, all remaining free agent relievers have some kind of red flag. Grilli’s strikeout rate fell a ton last year and Soriano had that brutal second half. Both guys also have a history of elbow problems. The Yankees know Soriano from his time in New York — that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be easier to strike a deal, remember Brian Cashman very publicly said he didn’t want to sign him, so maybe Soriano holds a grudge or something — but Grilli would be coming in blind.

There is clearly a spot in the bullpen for another veteran late inning reliever, and both Soriano and Grilli could assume the closer’s job so Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller could remain in setup roles. I would prefer the Yankees to stick to a one-year contract so they could more easily cut bait at midseason if necessary, which would take them out of the running for Soriano. Of course, the team may feel differently and could be open to bringing Soriano back on a two-year contract. Both are qualified for the late innings and both are risky. Pick your poison.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Justin Masterson

(Brian Garfinkel/Getty)
(Brian Garfinkel/Getty)

At the Winter Meetings this week and really throughout the rest of the offseason, the Yankees will be on the lookout for pitching. Rotation help and general depth. Their top four returning starters — Masahiro Tanaka (elbow), Michael Pineda (shoulder), CC Sabathia (knee), and David Phelps (elbow) — all have some kind of injury concern and the club needs to protect themselves. Expect them to kick the tires on everyone still available on the market, which includes basically every free agent pitcher.

One of those free agent pitchers is right-hander Justin Masterson, who will turn 30 in March. He had a miserable 2014 season with the Indians and Cardinals — St. Louis left him off their postseason roster — and is now looked at as something of a reclamation project. At this time last year he was considered a staff anchor who could fill any of the top three spots in a rotation on a given day. That is no longer the case. The Yankees need to add some certainty to their rotation, someone they can count on for innings, and Masterson may or may not fit the bill. Let’s look.

Up And Down Performance

Usually in this section I’ll put together a table with the player’s performance over the last three or four years, but with Masterson I think it’s best to post some graphs just to really drive home how up and down his performance has been the last few years. Check it out:

Masterson has alternated some really excellent seasons with some really awful seasons since his first full season as a starter in 2010. His strikeout rates have remained pretty much in line with the league average over the years while his ground ball rates have been consistently excellent, well above the league average and close to 60% of balls in play. As bad as 2014 was, he still had a 58.2% grounder rate. That’s as good as it gets.

Because he only has an average strikeout rate and is an extreme ground ball pitcher, Masterson’s success depends heavily on his infield defense. His batting average on balls in play has been consistently above .305 through his career with the exception of the 2013 season, when it was a career-low .285. Masterson’s walk rate shot up 11.7% this past season after sitting right around 9.5% from 2010-13, so he will walk some guys. More than anything, Masterson’s biggest problem is his vulnerability against left-handed pitchers. Check it out:

RHB wOBA RHB K% RHB BB% RHB GB% LHB wOBA LHP K% LHP BB% LHP GB%
2010 .307 22.8% 7.5% 62.6% .350 13.1% 10.4% 57.8%
2011 .259 22.8% 9.6% 61.0% .327 13.3% 5.3% 51.4%
2012 .277 23.3% 8.6% 59.0% .360 13.5% 10.5% 53.6%
2013 .238 32.0% 7.1% 63.6% .316 19.4% 10.9% 55.0%
2014 .332 25.5% 11.6% 63.1% .400 14.5% 11.7% 54.5%
Average .281 25.0% 8.8% 61.6% .347 14.8% 9.6% 54.3%

Overall, Masterson’s performance has gone up and down these last few years, and wouldn’t you know it? So has his performance against lefties. When he is reasonably effective against lefties — almost all of that success is BABIP-related too, his strikeout, walk, and grounder rates have remained fairly steady against left-handers over the years — he’s a very good pitcher overall. When not, well, he’s basically an average innings eater.

We’ll get to why Masterson dominates righties but struggles against lefties in a little bit when we look at his stuff, but for now we just need to know that he’s essentially a platoon pitcher. Yankee Stadium is not a good place to struggle against lefties because of the short right field porch, though Masterson’s grounder heavy ways would mitigate that somewhat. After more than 1,000 innings in the big leagues, improving against left-handers doesn’t seem like something that will just happen. The inability to consistently retire lefties is just something you’ll have to live with.

Stuff Breakdown

Masterson is a huge guy — he’s listed at 6-foot-6 and 250 lbs. — yet he has a very low arm slot and releases the ball almost behind a righty batter, similar to Randy Johnson, just from the other side. Masterson’s delivery is all arms and legs too. Big leg kick, long arm action in the back, everything’s moving and whipping around. I can’t imagine he’s a comfortable at-bat, especially for same-side hitters. Check it out:

As you can see in the video, Masterson is a big time sinker/slider guy. He will mix in a few straight four-seamers per start but the sinker and slider have combined for approximately 70% of his pitches since becoming a full-time starter in 2010. Masterson doesn’t have a changeup at all — he threw five (five!) changeups in 2014 and has thrown only 47 changeups over the last four seasons. He’s a sinker/slider/four-seamer guy.

Between the utter lack of a changeup and the easy to see low arm slot, it’s no surprise Masterson has struggled against left-handed batters throughout his career. They can pick up the ball out of hands well and he doesn’t have a pitch to get them out. He basically has to hope they beat his sinker into the ground or come up empty against the slider. There’s nothing that moves away from lefties and keeps the ball off the barrel of the bat. At the same time, the sinker/slider/arm slot combo is hell on righties.

Both the sinker and slider have been above-average at getting both swings and misses and ground balls over the years — even in 2014 — while the four-seamer is very slightly below-average at both. From 2010-2013, the sinker/slider/four-seamer repertoire got the job done for Masterson and he was a quality MLB starter. That wasn’t the case this past season, and, probably not coincidentally, his velocity dropped off noticeably. From Brooks Baseball:

Justin Masterson velocity

Masterson’s average sinker velocity has gradually declined from 92.74 mph in 2011 to 89.68 mph in 2014, though the drops in four-seam fastball and slider velocity are much more drastic. Masterson’s four-seamer sat 94.11 mph in 2013 and 90.97 mph in 2014. The slider went from 83.67 mph to 82.05 mph from 2013-14. We’re talking about losing three miles an hour off the four-seamer and one and half miles an hour off the slider. That’s huge. So huge that I can’t help but wonder if something is physically wrong.

If you’re a team looking to sign Masterson, you almost have to hope he was either a mechanical mess this summer or was hiding some kind of minor injury. Something that explains the velocity loss because usually velocity doesn’t come back on its own unless there was a physical or mechanical problem. Masterson’s control isn’t good enough — just look at his walk rates in the graph above — to get by with reduced velocity. We saw it last year. Masterson with a low-90s sinker and mid-80s slider is a much different animal than Masterson with an upper-80s sinker and low-80s slider. The latter is far less effective.

Injury History

Masterson has been on the DL just once in his career, and it was for right knee inflammation this past July. A balky knee could explain the loss in velocity, especially since it is his push-off leg. He was out a little more than three weeks with the knee and was actually traded to the Cardinals while on the DL. Masterson had a 5.51 ERA (4.08 FIP) before the knee injury and a 7.04 ERA (5.84 FIP) after, so getting healthy didn’t help his performance.

Other than the knee, Masterson did miss three weeks with an oblique strain in September 2013, though the Indians never bothered to place him on the DL because rosters were expanded. So it’s really two DL worthy injuries in his career but only one actual DL stint. Masterson also had arthroscopic surgery to repair a slight tear in his left (non-pitching!) shoulder during the 2011-12 offseason. He was healthy in time for Spring Training and hasn’t had any problems since. Oblique strains happen. This knee issue is a much bigger concern. What caused the inflammation?

Contract Estimates

The Indians and Masterson discussed a contract extension last offseason. Jon Heyman said Masterson was reportedly looking for two or three years at $17M annually — considering his performance from 2010-13, that was a pretty damn reasonable contract demand — while the Tribe countered with a two-year pact worth $30M. The two sides broke off talks and now the consensus is Masterson is looking at a one-year contract to rebuild value.

  • FanGraphs Crowdsourcing: One year at $9M.
  • Jim Bowden (subs. req’d): One year at $7M.
  • Keith Law (subs. req’d): “If he’ll take $5 million a year and agree to work in relief, he’s good value, but if he wants starter money and a rotation job, I’m out.”

Did the Indians know Masterson’s stuff was about to decline and that’s why they didn’t meet his asking price? I don’t think we can rule it out, maybe they had some concern about his long-term outlook, but predicting a pitcher will lose three miles an hour off his fastball from one year to the next seems like something that can’t be done. Maybe I’m wrong. Either way, Masterson’s looking at a one-year contract, probably in the $5M to $10M range.

Wrapping Up

The Yankees need to fill multiple rotation spots this winter after trading Shane Greene for Didi Gregorius. Going big for Max Scherzer or Jon Lester would be a huge help, but in the end those guys are still only filling one rotation spot. The club figures to scour the second and third tier of the pitching market and that’s where Masterson sits. In all likelihood he will only get a one-year contract, so he’s relatively low risk in that regard, but the velocity loss and career-long struggles against lefties make him high risk on the field. Even with the fallback of being reliever — Masterson’s pitched out of the bullpen before and been very effective — there’s a chance he’s just a bad pitcher now. It happens.

Looking at this from Masterson’s perspective, if he’s going to take a one-year contract to rebuild value, Yankee Stadium probably isn’t the best place to do it. Even as a ground ball pitcher. Most guys in his situation gravitate towards teams will bigger ballparks even though clubs nowadays are aware of park effects and can see through superficial stats like ERA. Big ballpark teams like the Twins, Marlins, Tigers, Giants, and Braves have all reportedly been in touch with Masterson so far this winter, so unless the Yankees really make it worth his while financially, the right-hander will probably head somewhere that is a little easier to pitch.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Jon Lester

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Even before trading Shane Greene to get Didi Gregorius, the Yankees needed rotation help. Now they really need rotation help. Their top five starters right now are (in whatever order) Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, David Phelps, and probably Bryan Mitchell, at least until Ivan Nova returns from Tommy John surgery at midseason. Tanaka (elbow), Sabathia (knee), Pineda (shoulder), and Phelps (elbow) all landed on the DL this past season and their injury concerns will carry into 2015.

Along with Max Scherzer (Scouting the Market), one of the top two free agent starters available this offseason is ex-Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester, a legitimate ace who’s shown he has big market and postseason chops. The Yankees have insisted all winter they will not hand out another massive contract after getting burned by the Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and Alex Rodriguez deals. One Yankees executive even went so far as to tell Joel Sherman that Lester’s “name never even comes up in discussions.”

That said, these are the Yankees, and they could change their mind and offer a market-busting contract at literally any moment. They’ve done it before and it’s a safe assumption they’ll do it again at some point. Lester has obviously been excellent through the first nine seasons of his career, but whichever team signs him won’t be getting those nine years, they’ll be getting the next six or seven or however many years of his career. Those figure to look quite a bit different than 2006-14 Lester. Is 2015-? Lester a fit for the Yankees? Let’s look.

High-End Performance

We’re all familiar with Lester. We’ve been watching him pitch against the Yankees multiple time every year for nearly a decade now. He’s excellent. I know it, you know it, we all know it. This section is just a formality, really. Here’s how Lester has pitched these last three seasons.

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% RHB wOBA LHP wOBA
2012 205.1 4.82 4.11 19.0% 7.8% 49.2% 13.9% 0.339 0.321
2013 213.1 3.75 3.59 19.6% 7.4% 45.0% 8.3% 0.317 0.294
2014 219.2 2.46 2.80 24.9% 5.4% 42.4% 7.2% 0.275 0.309
TOTAL 638.1 3.65 3.49 21.1% 6.9% 45.6% 9.5% 0.310 0.309

Lester had what as likely a career year in 2014, two years after having the worst year of his career. He was excellent this past season but the 2012-13 seasons weren’t anything special (4.28 ERA and 3.84 FIP).

Lester did rebound from that ugly 2012 season and that’s a positive. A lot of pitchers are unable to rebound after a rough season like that. Realistically, I think you sign Lester hoping you get the 2014 version in 2015 but expecting the overall 2012-14 version. That make sense? If you’re expecting six or seven years of 2014 Lester, you’ll be disappointed. That won’t happen.

Stuff Breakdown

Unlike, say, Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale, Lester is not a huge stuff guy from the left side. He’s not going to blow anyone away with fastballs or buckle knees with nasty breaking balls. He’s basically a three-pitch pitcher these days (four-seamer, cutter, curveball) who will throw two other pitches (sinker, changeup) a handful of times per start and nothing more. Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, here is Lester’s pitch selection over the years:

Jon Lester pitch selection

Between the four-seamer and cutter, Lester throws a fastball roughly 70% of the time nowadays. It works because he mixes the two pitches well and can locate them to both sides of the plate against lefties and righties. Chances are he’ll throw you a fastball for any given pitch, but good luck guessing whether it’ll be a four-seamer or a cutter, and where it’ll be located. It’s the Cliff Lee model — good but not great stuff that plays up because of location and unpredictability.

We’re going to get into Lester’s workload in a second, but he turns 31 next month and has thrown a lot of innings over the years. You knew that already. So, then, it’s no surprise his velocity declined across the board last season:

Jon Lester velocity

It’s not a huge decline but it is a decline. Lester’s four-seamer averaged 94.01 mph in 2013 and 93.15 mph in 2014. The cutter went from 90.66 to 88.88. The curveball went from 76.85 to 75.95. This is totally normal! Pitchers lose velocity as they age and Lester is probably going to lose even more velocity in the coming years. Lester’s release point has gradually dropped about three inches over the years as well …

Jon Lester release point

… and that’s also a normal part of the aging process. That’s the life of a pitcher over 30.

Lester showed he can pitch with the reduced velocity in 2014 and while it’s easy to think he’ll be able to adjust a la Andy Pettitte because he’s a command-based lefty, the fact is we don’t really know how or if he’ll adjust in the future. Whichever teams sign Lester will do so assuming he can adjust and remain effective, otherwise they wouldn’t give him six or seven or however many years.

Okay, so we know what Lester throws, how often he throws it, and how hard he throws it. Now let’s look at how effective these individual pitches are in terms of generating swings and misses and getting ground balls. With the help of Brooks Baseball once again, here are how Lester’s three main pitches rate at getting whiffs and grounders:

FB Whiff% FB GB% CT Whiff% CT GB% CB Whiff% CB GB%
2012 6.2% 36.6% 13.0% 47.3% 10.9% 48.2%
2013 6.7% 35.3% 11.2% 50.0% 9.4% 43.3%
2014 6.9% 29.3% 12.4% 48.1% 18.7% 52.6%
MLB AVG 6.9% 37.9% 9.7% 43.9% 11.1% 48.7%

Generally speaking, Lester’s four-seamer has been average at getting swings and misses and below-average at getting grounders while the cutter and curve have been above-average at getting both whiffs and grounders. The four-seam fastball is the worst of Lester’s three main offerings. The cutter and curveball are his moneymakers.

The Yankees have become a very cutter-happy organization in recent years. Phil Hughes added a cutter. David Robertson added a cutter. David Phelps and Adam Warren added cutters after being drafted. Sabathia’s been working to add a cutter. Manny Banuelos and Ian Clarkin both added cutters in the minors. Many teams shy away from the cut fastball — most famously, the Orioles took the cutter away from top prospect Dylan Bundy even though it’s his best pitch — but the Yankees embrace it, perhaps due to Mariano Rivera‘s success. Lester fits right in with the organizational philosophy.

Early-Career Workload

During his regular season career, Lester has thrown 1,596 innings through his age 30 season, the 35th most over the last 25 years. Pitch count data only goes back to the 2000 season, and since then, Lester’s 26,321 pitches through age 30 are the 16th most in baseball. Here’s the top 25 in regular season pitches before age 31 since that 2000 season via Baseball Reference:

Rank Player Pitches
1 CC Sabathia 37,026
2 Jon Garland 32,416
3 Felix Hernandez 31,478
4 Mark Buehrle 31,170
5 Carlos Zambrano 30,403
6 Barry Zito 30,198
7 Zack Greinke 29,955
8 Justin Verlander 29,116
9 Matt Cain 29,033
10 Cole Hamels 27,888
11 Javier Vazquez 27,506
12 Ervin Santana 26,846
13 Dan Haren 26,726
14 Edwin Jackson 26,509
15 Johan Santana 26,327
16 Jon Lester 26,321
17 Tim Lincecum 25,793
18 Brett Myers 25,763
19 Jake Peavy 25,662
20 Jeff Weaver 24,649
21 Roy Oswalt 24,250
22 Josh Beckett 24,234
23 Kyle Lohse 24,001
24 Scott Kazmir 23,889
25 John Lackey 23,828

It’s a shame we can’t go back any further, so this will have to do.

Now, obviously all pitches are not created equal. I’m guessing a higher percentage of Lester’s 26,321 pitches before age 30 were “stressful” than Zack Greinke’s 29,955. Lester was pitching in pressure packing AL East games the moment he got to the big leagues. Greinke didn’t play on a contender until he got to the Brewers in his age 27 season. Throwing a lot of pitches is generally bad. Throwing a lot of stressful pitches is worse. Lester’s thrown an awful lot of them in his career, I reckon.

By the way, of those 25 pitchers in the table above, I count only five (Garland, Johan, Myers, Beckett, Lackey) who had a substantial arm injury after their age 30 season. (Sabathia had knee trouble.) I wouldn’t think much of that though, there’s a lot of recency bias here. Most of those guys simply haven’t the chance to pitch at all much after the age of 30 yet, like Lester. Heck, Felix is still only 28.

Injury History

As you know, Lester overcame a treatable form of anaplastic large cell lymphoma earlier in his career. He was diagnosed in August 2006, underwent chemotherapy, and was declared cancer-free in November 2006. That’s obviously very serious and has to be noted. Lester’s been a horse since then and has done all sorts of wonderful charity stuff to benefit cancer research these last few years.

As for actual baseball injuries, Lester has been on the DL just once, for a lat strain in July 2011. He missed 19 days and hasn’t had any trouble since. Lester missed a start with a hamstring strain in 2012 and missed another start with a hip strain in 2013. That’s his injury history right there. No arm problems whatsoever and no other significant injuries. The best predictor of future injuries is past injuries and Lester’s been very healthy since become a full-time big leaguer in 2007.

Contract Estimates

Because he was traded at midseason, the Athletics could not make Lester the qualifying offer and therefore he will not cost a draft pick to sign, unlike Scherzer. Giving up a draft pick is a minor consideration when you’re talking about elite players, but signing Lester and being able to keep your first rounder is pretty cool. Here are some contract estimates:

  • FanGraphs Crowdsourcing: Six years, $132M. ($22M AAV)
  • Jim Bowden (subs. req’d): Six years, $138M. ($23M AAV)
  • MLB Trade Rumors: “Lester should command at least the six years and $147MM Greinke received two years ago, and potentially more.” ($24.5M AAV)

According to Jon Heyman, Lester already has several offers in the $130M to $140M range, though the Red Sox are in a bit lower than that. The Cubs, Dodgers, and Braves are also said to be involved to some extent. I’m sure other clubs are in the mix as well. One executive told Ken Rosenthal that Lester is going to wind up with seven years — “Book it,” said the exec — and that makes sense to me. If Lester’s sitting on a bunch of six-year offers, it’s probably only a matter of time before a team gets desperate and offers that seventh guaranteed year, which will be the separator.

It’s worth noting that when Sabathia signed his initial seven-year, $161M deal with the Yankees, he was only 28. Greinke was 28 when he signed with the Dodgers and Hamels was 28 when he signed his six-year, $144M extension with the Phillies. Lester turns 31 in a few weeks and we’re talking about a difference of three peak years and that’s significant. Cliff Lee had just turned 32 when he signed his five-year, $120M deal with the Phillies. That might be a more appropriate contract comparison for Lester than Greinke and Hamels.

Of course, the market is going to determine Lester’s contract, not what similar-aged pitchers received the last few years. There’s so much money in the game these days and so few elite players to spend it on. Lester is well-positioned to get at least six years and I do think it’ll end up getting seven years when it’s all said and done — maybe a six-year deal with a seventh year vesting option? — probably with an average annual value north of $24M. That’s the market. Even with offense hard to find, aces come at a premium.

Wrapping Up

So, long story short, Lester is very good and healthy. He’s a big guy — listed 6-foot-4 and 240 lbs. — with two solidly above-average pitches in his cutter and curveball even though his overall velocity is starting to disappear. There’s an awful lot to like here. It goes without saying Lester would be an immense help to the 2015 Yankees, but, at the same time, I have a tough time overlooking all the aces — Sabathia, Cain, Verlander, Lincecum, etc. — who’ve suddenly fallen apart with little to no warning recently.

If the Yankees do decide to reverse course and spend big on a free agent, few targets make as much sense as Lester. I don’t just mean this offseason either, few free agent starters offer this kind of pedigree. There has not yet been any indication the Yankees are going to get seriously involved in the Lester market, but, as I said earlier, that could change in a heartbeat. Personally, I think they should focus on smaller additions to upgrade as many roster spots as possible, but adding someone of Lester’s caliber is never bad move.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Everth Cabrera

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The non-tender deadline came and went on Tuesday, and all told a total of 32 new free agents hit the market, including Slade Heathcott, Jose Campos, and David Huff. Most of those 32 players are fringy Quad-A types or bench players who were slated to make too much money through arbitration. That’s the case every year. The non-tender deadline is more exciting in our heads than in reality.

Anyway, one of the most interesting players non-tendered earlier this week is shortstop Everth Cabrera, who was cut loose by the Padres. He’s interesting only because he’s still relatively young (turned 28 last month), he once led the NL in stolen bases (44 in 48 attempts in 2012), and because he’s a shortstop (the Yankees need a shortstop). When someone like Cabrera hits a market in which the best available shortstops are Stephen Drew, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Jed Lowrie, yeah he’s worth investigating. Let’s see if he makes sense for the Yankees.

Offense, If That’s What You Want To Call It

Cabrera’s backstory is pretty interesting. He’s one of only 23 players in history from Nicaragua — only Marvin Bernard has more career plate appearances among Nicaraguan-born players — and the Padres originally acquired him from the Rockies in the 2008 Rule 5 Draft. He stuck too. San Diego gave Cabrera 438 plate appearances as a 22-year-old in 2009 even though he had only four career games above Low Class-A — all four at High-A, so he essentially jumped from Low-A to MLB — and the results were actually pretty good all things considered: .255/.342/.361 (95 wRC+) with 25 steals.

Since he stuck as a Rule 5 pick and the Padres controlled his rights, they took advantage and had Cabrera spend most of the 2010-11 seasons in the minors for more seasoning. He didn’t return to the big leagues for good until 2012. They were pretty patient with him. Here’s what Cabrera has done in his three full seasons since returning to MLB:

PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ BABIP K% BB% SB (SB%) wRC+ vs. RHP wRC+ vs.LHP
2012 449 .246 .324 .324 87 .336 24.5% 9.6% 44 (92%) 102 47
2013 435 .283 .355 .381 114 .337 15.9% 9.4% 37 (76%) 90 169
2014 391 .232 .272 .300 65 .294 22.0% 5.1% 18 (69%) 59 84
TOTAL 1,275 .254 .319 .335 89 .323 20.8% 8.2% 99 (80%) 84 103

The 2013 season went pretty well — Cabrera was San Diego’s token All-Star* that year — but 2012 and 2014 were pretty bad. Cabrera is a switch-hitter who hasn’t done a whole lot against right-handed pitchers, meaning he wouldn’t even be on the heavy side of the platoon. He has zero power — he’s hit 21 homers in 3,522 career plate appearances between MLB and the minors — but that’s not his game, he’s a speedy leadoff type who steals bases, and he’s been quite good at stealing bases.

In fact, Cabrera has been one of the game’s most valuable base-runners over the last three years. That’s not just stealing bases either, I’m talking about going first-to-third on a single, scoring from first on a double, advancing on wild pitches, the whole nine. FanGraphs’ base-running stats say he’s been worth 16.0 runs on the bases since 2012, tenth most among the 223 players with at least 1,000 plate appearances during that time. He’s right behind noted base-runner Elvis Andrus (16.4 base-running runs) in 800 fewer plate appearances. Running the bases isn’t the most valuable thing in the world — 16.0 runs is about a win and half spread across three years — but it is Cabrera’s elite skill.

Everth’s best year at the plate came when he cut his strikeout rate by about one-third, though his swing rates on pitches both in and out of the zone were right in line with his career averages. His contact rates — 92.9% in the zone and 71.0% out of the zone — were much higher than his career averages (89.8% and 92.9%, respectively), however. That success could be attributed to some swing adjustments he made in Spring Training. Here are some details from Corey Brock back in March 2013:

“It’s more of a shorter, direct path to the ball,” manager Bud Black said of Cabrera. “It’s trying to keep the ball out of the air. He needs to work on line drive, down. That’s his challenge.”

“He and [hitting coach Phil Plantier] have been working real hard on his swing this winter,” Black said. “Everth spent a lot of time in Los Angeles working at a performance center. Then he would drive down to Phil’s house and work in his backyard.”

According to Brock, the focus of the work was on Cabrera’s right-handed swing, and it showed in his performance against left-handed pitchers that year (169 wRC+). That success didn’t carry over into 2014 and his production from the left side of the plate has been trending downward as well. There is some tangible evidence suggesting the improved contact rates in 2013 weren’t a fluke, though it’s unclear why Cabrera was unable to repeat that success this past season.

For what it’s worth, Cabrera has done a very good job of slapping the ball on the ground and using his speed the last three years — his 65.6% ground ball rate since 2012 is the second highest in baseball behind Ben Revere (64.3%). (Derek Jeter is third at 65.5%, by the way.) That’s his game. It hasn’t turned into results outside of 2013, however. You have to really squint your eyes and hope Cabrera suddenly improves his contract rates again to see him as even a league-average hitter going forward. The base-running is nice, but that alone isn’t enough to keep a player in the lineup.

In The Field

Cabrera has spent very limited time at second base (80 innings) and third base (two innings) in his MLB career. He did start his career in the minors at second base before sliding over to shortstop full-time once he got to the Padres, where he’s been ever since. Here’s what the four main defensive systems say about Everth’s work in the field these last three years:

Innings at SS DRS UZR Total Zone FRAA
2012 915.1 -4 -5.0 -11 7.0
2013 847.2 -3 -1.1 4 0.7
2014 804.0 -3 -4.8 1 1.4
TOTAL 2,567.0 -10 -10.9 -6 9.1

Mostly negative. I wouldn’t get too caught up in the exact numbers. The consensus seems to be that Cabrera was a bit below-average in the field these last three years. That’s enough detail for me. The only scouting report I can find about Cabrera’s defense comes from way back in 2009, when Baseball America ranked him as the 24th best prospect in San Diego’s system. “Cabrera … seamlessly shifted across the bag during the second half of 2008, showing solid range and arm strength at short,” said the write-up. That’s all we’ve got.

As sketchy as they are, the defensive stats are much more recent than Baseball America’s scouting report, so I trust them more. I think we have to say Cabrera is a below-average defender right now. The evidence points in that direction.

Injury History

Staying on the field has been a challenge for Cabrera over the years. Here’s a recap of everything that sent him to the disabled list since his MLB debut in 2009:

  • 2009: Broken hamate in left wrist, suffered on a hit-by-pitch. Out 60 days.
  • 2010: Two right hamstring strains. Out 49 total days.
  • 2011: Broken hamate in right wrist, out 47 days. Left shoulder subluxation, out 33 days.
  • 2012: Healthy!
  • 2013: Left hamstring strain, out 17 days.
  • 2014: Two left hamstring strains. Out 78 total days.

That’s an awful lot of injuries, and, as serious as the two wrist fractures and shoulder problem are, the continued hamstring issues scary me the most. Cabrera is a speed first player who needs his legs to be valuable. If they are starting to be compromised by injury, he’ll become unrosterable in a hurry. He needs his legs to be healthy to contribute. That’s not up for debate.

Off-the-Field Issues

This is where it really starts to get ugly. Cabrera’s had numerous off-the-field problems and run-ins with the law these last few years. Here’s a recap:

  • June 2012: Arrested for domestic violence. The case was eventually dismissed.
  • August 2013: Suspended 50 games for his ties to Biogenesis. He admitted to taking an undisclosed banned substance to help get healthy after the 2011 shoulder injury after the suspension was announced.
  • September 2014: Arrested for driving under the influence of marijuana and was later charged with resisting arrest. The case is still pending.

Performance-enhancing drugs are bad but the Biogenesis stuff is the least bad thing in Cabrera’s history. Even though the case was dismissed, domestic violence is not something to brush under the rug, especially since MLB hopes to have a domestic violence policy in place by next season. The resisting arrest charge is still pending too. That carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail if he’s found guilty.

Teams are willing to overlook this sort of stuff if you’re a star player, they’ve shown that time and time again, but a fringe player like Cabrera? He’s probably not worth the headache. The Yankees were all about second chances under George Steinbrenner, most notably signing Doc Gooden and Darryl Strawberry, but those guys were former stars. Not borderline big leaguers.

Contract Situation

Cabrera earned $2.45M this past season, his second of four trips through arbitration as a Super Two. MLBTR projected him to make $2.9M through arbitration in 2015. Cabrera will remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2016 before becoming eligible for free agency during the 2016-17 offseason.

Wrapping Up

After non-tendering Cabrera earlier this week, new Padres GM A.J. Preller told Jeff Sanders the team won’t try to re-sign him and it was “pretty much a move that (means) we’re going in a different direction.” They opted to cut Cabrera loose rather than pay him a modest $2.9M next year even though he’s a shortstop and shortstops are really hard to find.

The speed and the fact that he’s on the right side of 30 make Cabrera interesting, but aside from his base-running, there’s not a whole lot to like here. He’d have to improve his contact rates to provide more offense and, well, that’s really hard to do. Cabrera can run and that’s wonderful, but he doesn’t hit much, isn’t great in the field, doesn’t stay healthy, and has a police record. That’s … not really a guy I want on my team.

The Yankees have emphasized strong makeup and character the last few years now and that leads me to believe they’ll steer clear of Cabrera even though they really need a shortstop. My guess is he’ll have to settle for a minor league contract somewhere and impress in Spring Training just to stick around as a team’s Triple-A shortstop come April. I would be very surprised if a team guaranteed him a roster spot this winter.

* Fun Fact: A Padre has not actually played in the All-Star Game since Heath Bell faced one batter in the 2011 Midsummer Classic.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: David Robertson and Andrew Miller

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Yesterday morning we learned quite a bit about the free agent reliever market, specifically that the Yankees are in “serious pursuit” of Andrew Miller and are unwilling to give David Robertson a four-year deal. They’ve reportedly talked about trades involving bullpen help with the Marlins and Braves as well. The Miller and Robertson stuff is the big news though. It sure feels like one of those two will wear pinstripes next season.

As I said yesterday, I think the Robertson stuff is all posturing and they’re just trying to get his price down. The interest in Miller could be an attempt to apply some pressure as well. It goes without saying that both Robertson and Miller are excellent pitchers anyone would love to have in their bullpen. It makes perfect sense that the Yankees would have interest in both guys. But it sounds like it will only be one or the other, not both as much as I and everyone else would love it. Is one a better investment than the other? Let’s compare.

Recent Performance

Again, both Robertson and Miller are excellent. They’re elite relievers in the prime of their careers. Here are their 2014 seasons side-by-side:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% BABIP WPA LHB wOBA RHB wOBA
Robertson 64.1 3.08 2.68 37.1% 8.9% 44.2% 15.6% .288 1.79 .201 .336
Miller 62.1 2.02 1.51 42.6% 7.0% 46.9% 8.6% .263 1.58 .211 .208

Miller was better than Robertson this past season in nearly every way. The only thing Robertson did better was get left-handed batters out, which is pretty amazing because he’s a righty and Miller’s the lefty with the all-world slider. Robertson’s cutter and curveball are really great in their own right too.

The difference between these two guys this year is that Miller never had a season this good before and Robertson hadn’t had one this bad — “bad” — since 2010, before his breakout 2011 effort. Robertson’s been dynamite for four years now. Miller spent a very long time trying to figure out his mechanics — he had a 5.54 ERA (5.12 FIP) as recently as 2011 — and it wasn’t until last year that he turned into a super reliever. He was very good in 2012 (3.35 ERA and 3.27 FIP), but 2013 was when he joined the tier of relievers Robertson has occupied since 2011.

Here are Robertson and Miller’s performances side-by-side over the last three years:

IP ERA FIP K% BB% GB% HR/FB% BABIP WPA LHB wOBA RHB wOBA
Robertson 191.1 2.59 2.59 33.0% 7.8% 46.9% 11.8% .302 5.61 .226 .318
Miller 133.1 2.57 2.37 37.0% 9.9% 47.8% 11.0% .283 2.69 .236 .258

Nearly identical. Miller has a slight edge in strikeout rate, Robertson a slight edge in walk rate. Miller’s platoon split is smaller. And, of course, Robertson has thrown more than 40% more innings. That’s not negligible. If we were to take Miller’s last ~190 innings to match Robertson’s total instead of the last three years, he’d have a 3.54 ERA and 3.27 FIP. (If we took Robertson’s last ~130 innings to match Miller’s total, he’d have a 2.55 ERA and 2.65 FIP.)

In the middle of the 2012 season, Robertson simply stopped walking guys. It was weird and pretty awesome. Throwing strikes was never his strong suit, but, out of the blue, he started pounding the zone and has done so since. Miller went through something similar that season though not as extreme. His walk problems were also much more severe than Robertson’s earlier in their careers:


Source: FanGraphsAndrew Miller, David Robertson

Long story short, Miller was better than Robertson in 2014 but Robertson’s track record as a top notch relief pitcher is nearly twice as long in terms of innings pitched. I think it’s pretty interesting Robertson has been better against lefties than Miller while Miller has been better against righties than Robertson. There’s a weird reverse platoon split thing going on.

Stuff Breakdown

Since they are relievers, it’s no surprise Robertson and Miller are basically two-pitch pitchers. They will both throw the occasional changeup but not often enough to be a factor. Robertson is a cutter/curveball pitcher — he’s all but abandoned the four-seam fastball in favor of the cutter at this point — while Miller is a four-seamer/slider pitcher. With an assist from Brooks Baseball, here is a comparison of their fastballs (FB) and breaking balls (BB).

FBv FB% FB Whiff+ FB GB+ BBv BB% BB Whiff+ BB GB+
2013 Robertson 92.7 72.4% 71 111 82.0 26.9% 173 125
2014 Robertson 92.6 62.1% 72 95 83.9 35.0% 209 125
2013 Miller 96.0 56.7% 120 118 86.5 43.3% 137 148
2014 Miller 95.1 56.7% 110 117 85.0 42.6% 172 132

Whiff+ and GB+ are the swing-and-miss and ground ball rates of the individual pitches relative to the league average. It works like wRC+ and ERA+ and all that. 100 is average, the higher the number, the better. Got it? Good.

It surprised me that Robertson’s cutter has been comfortably below-average at getting swings and misses, though I do suppose he gets a lot of called strikes with the pitch. Miller has the much better fastball in almost every way — velocity, swings and misses, and grounders — but Robertson’s curve is the better breaking ball when it comes to getting empty swings. Miller’s slider has a small advantage at getting ground balls.

So, I guess the best way to explain this is Miller has the more dominant two-pitch mix but Robertson has the best individual pitch with his curveball. That make sense? Curveballs historically have a much smaller platoon split than sliders, but Miller’s slider is so damn good it doesn’t matter what side of the plate the hitter is on. He’s a lefty and that’s nice, but he’s far from a lefty specialist.

Injury History

Robertson and Miller are the same age — Robertson is 42 days older — and neither has had any kind of major arm injury, so that’s good. Robertson missed two weeks with elbow stiffness back in September 2009 but hasn’t had any trouble since. He’s been on the DL only twice in his career: 33 days for an oblique strain in 2012 and 15 days for a groin strain this past April. Nothing serious or chronic. Muscle pulls happen.

Miller’s only career arm injury is a bout with elbow inflammation in Spring Training 2012. He’s been on the DL five times in his career: 19 days for a hamstring strain in 2007, 49 days for patellar tendinitis in his right knee in 2008, 25 days for an oblique strain in 2009, 41 days for another hamstring strain in 2012, and 116 days for a Lisfranc injury in his left foot in 2013. The Lisfranc injury required season-ending surgery that forced him to miss the 2013 postseason.

Both guys have dealt with their fair share of pulls and grabs over the years, but, most importantly, neither has had any serious arm trouble. Miller has the more durable looking frame — he’s listed at 6-foot-7 and 210 lbs. while Robertson is only 5-foot-11 and 195 lbs. — yet his Lisfranc injury is by far the most serious injury between the two simply because he needed surgery, though he showed no ill effects in 2014 whatsoever. By reliever standards, these guys are pretty healthy. No major red flags at all.

Contract Estimates

Alright, so how much money are these guys going to end up getting when it’s all said and done? Based on what we heard yesterday, it seems inevitable both will get four years. Here is a roundup of estimates:

Robertson Miller
FanGraphs Crowdsourcing Three years, $10M AAV Three years, $8M AAV
Jim Bowden (subs. req’d) Three years, $13M AAV Three years, $8.5M AAV
Axisa’s Guess Four years, $12M AAV Four years, $9M AAV
Average 3.33 years, $11.7M AAV 3.33 years, $8.5M AAV

To be fair, the FanGraphs and Bowden predictions came weeks ago, before the market blew up and reports surfaced indicating Robertson and Miller were likely to get four years each. The AAV is the more important number there and I am pretty much in agreement with the FanGraphs crowd and Bowden. Using the average AAV spread across four years, we get $46.8M for Robertson and $34M for Miller. That seems reasonable to me.

The Yankees did make Robertson the qualifying offer, which he rejected. So if he were to sign with another team, New York would receive a supplemental first round pick in next June’s draft. They would not gain a pick for signing Miller (duh) nor do they have to forfeit anything for signing either Miller or Robertson. The only draft pick to consider is the one the Yankees would get is Robertson left. I don’t think free agent decisions should hinge on draft pick compensation, not when you’re talking about elite players at their position, but it could serve as a tiebreaker of sorts.

Wrapping Up

So, all of those words and tables and graphs tell us both Robertson and Miller are really freaking good. Picking between them is ultimately a matter of preference. They’re the same age and they’re both going to end up with four-year contracts. Do you prefer the big lefty with the much shorter track record of being elite on a slightly lower annual salary, or the short righty with a nice long track record at a higher salary? There’s a reasonable argument to be made either way. Let’s vote.

Assuming the Yankees will only sign one, who should it be?

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Brett Anderson

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees are expected to cast a wide net as they search for pitching this offseason because that’s what they do every offseason. They consider every option, act on what they feel are the best options, and move forward. The team will reportedly steer clear of big names like James Shields, Jon Lester, and Max Scherzer this winter, at least depending on which report you want to believe, leaving them to pick from second and third tier options.

One of those second or third tier pitching options also happens to be the youngest free agent on the market: 26-year-old left-hander Brett Anderson. He won’t turn 27 until February, right before Spring Training. The Rockies declined his $12M club option earlier this month and so far only the Royals and Astros have been in contact with his agent, according to Andy McCullough and Evan Drellich. The Yankees have not yet been connected to Anderson this offseason but they did try to trade for him both last winter and at this summer’s trade deadline, so they could circle back and try to sign him this offseason. Let’s see what he has to offer.

The Long List of Injuries

Unfortunately, we have to start here. Anderson broke into the big leagues very young and managed to accrue six full years of service time while throwing only 494 innings, including only 206.1 over the last four seasons. He’s been hurt. A lot. Here’s the list of injuries that required a DL stint:

  • 2010: Elbow strain (missed 30 games) and then elbow inflammation (46 games).
  • 2011: Tommy John surgery (102 games).
  • 2012: Recovery from Tommy John surgery (120 games) and oblique strain (14 games).
  • 2013: Stress fracture in right foot (102 games).
  • 2014: Surgery for a fractured finger (83 games) and surgery to repair a bulging disc in his lower back (49 games).

Anderson has had some other minor day-to-day stuff over the years — missed a start with a blister in 2009, missed a start with back spasms in 2013, etc. — but those are the big injuries. It’s worth noting his finger was broken this year when he was hit by a pitch because the NL is dumb and doesn’t have the DH, so that one is sort of a fluke. I guess the other good news is that his arm has been healthy since he returned from Tommy John surgery in 2012, and because of all these injuries, he doesn’t have a ton of innings on that arm. But still, that is a ton of injuries.

Excellent When Healthy

So why bother with a pitcher as injury prone as Anderson? Because he’s been very good when he has been healthy. He posted a 4.06 ERA (3.69 FIP) in 30 starts and 175.1 innings as a 21-year-old his rookie year since 2009, and in the five seasons since, Anderson has a 3.56 ERA (3.41 FIP) in 318.2 innings around all the injuries. That includes a 2.91 ERA (2.99 FIP) in 43.1 innings for the Rockies this past summer.

Anderson is not a high strikeout pitcher by any means. He has a career 7.03 K/9 (18.6%), which is decidedly below-average, and his best strikeout season (9.27 K/9 and 23.0 K%) came when the Athletics stuck him in the bullpen in 2013. Anderson succeeds by being a ground ball pitcher who limits walks. His 55.4% career ground ball rate is the 12th highest among the 192 pitchers who have thrown at least 400 innings since 2009. Over the last three years he has a 61.4% grounder rate.

In his nearly 500 career innings, Anderson has a 2.42 BB/9 (6.4 BB%) walk rate that has been as low as 1.76 BB/9 (4.7 BB%) in a single season (112.1 innings in 2010). Last year with the Athletics he had an uncharacteristically high 4.23 BB/9 (10.5 BB%), but that rebounded to 2.70 BB/9 (7.2 BB%) this past season even though three of his 13 walks were intentional. Nothing fancy here — Anderson throws strikes and keeps the ball on the ground.

The Yankees have stealthily put together a high strikeout, low walk, moderately high ground ball pitching staff the last few years. Since the start of 2012, the team’s staff has the fourth highest strikeout rate (21.4%), lowest walk rate (6.9%), and 15th highest ground ball rate (44.6%) in baseball. They’ve combined an average ground ball rate with excellent walk and strikeout numbers. Anderson brings everything but the strikeouts, though his repertoire suggests there are more strikeouts hiding in there.

The Stuff

Anderson is a three-pitch pitcher trapped in a five-pitch pitcher’s body. He does throw five distinct pitches, but he relies so much on his two fastballs (four-seamer and sinker) and slider than his changeup and curveball are nothing more than show-me pitches at this point. Here’s a quick breakdown of his average velocity and pitch usage throughout his career (via Brooks Baseball):

FB% FBv SNK% SNKv SL% SLv CB% CBv CH% CHv
2009 50.5% 93.2 2.8% 92.0 32.7% 84.2 5.7% 77.6 8.3% 84.6
2010 42.3% 93.5 9.2% 91.9 30.5% 84.7 9.6% 78.8 8.4% 85.0
2011 30.9% 92.3 14.8% 91.3 40.0% 81.6 8.4% 75.9 5.8% 83.5
2012 28.7% 93.0 21.0% 91.5 32.6% 82.9 11.9% 77.7 5.0% 85.1
2013 34.5% 93.6 21.0% 92.6 32.7% 83.6 7.6% 77.9 4.3% 85.8
2014 25.1% 91.4 24.9% 90.6 33.3% 81.5 9.4% 75.2 5.8% 83.5

There’s a lot going on in there, but, most importantly: holy moly that’s a lot of sliders. Among those 192 pitchers who have thrown at least 400 innings since 2009, only Luke Gregerson (55.8%!) has thrown a higher percentage of sliders than Anderson. All those sliders sure help explain the Tommy John surgery earlier in his career. Throwing that many breaking balls at that age is no good for the elbow.

Aside from the slider business, the table also shows that Anderson has gradually thrown more and more sinkers over the years — explains why his 2012-14 ground ball rate is higher than his career rate, as mentioned earlier — and that he’s throwing his changeup less than ever. He’ll throw a handful of curveballs each start but nothing more. He’s going to get you out with four-seamers, sinkers, and sliders primarily.

So, with that in mind, let’s take a second to actually see what these pitches actually look like. I assume the four-seamer looks like every other four-seamer in baseball history, so here’s a clip with a bunch of sliders, one changeup (0:10 mark), and one sinker (0:35 mark):

That slider is something else. If I could throw a slider like that, I’d probably throw it one out of everything three pitches until my elbow exploded too. It makes you wonder why his career strikeout rate is only 18.6%. Maybe Anderson simply gets too many quick balls in play on the ground that doesn’t have the opportunity to bury hitters — both righties and lefties, as you saw in the video — with the slider in two-strike counts? I dunno.

Anyway, here is how Anderson’s four-seamer, sinker, and slider have done at generating swings and misses and ground balls over the years. I’m not too concerned with the curveball and changeup since they aren’t among his main offerings. These are his money-makers.

FB Whiff% FB GB% SNK Whiff% SNK GB% SL Whiff% SL GB%
2009 5.0% 41.2% 2.6% 60.0% 14.7% 70.3%
2010 4.4% 41.8% 5.2% 60.0% 15.2% 66.0%
2011 4.5% 34.2% 6.2% 71.4% 10.2% 68.9%
2012 3.5% 16.4% 4.8% 69.7% 17.0% 55.9%
2013 3.9% 40.8% 7.7% 81.8% 16.3% 74.2%
2014 3.6% 69.2% 4.7% 67.4% 16.8% 60.8%
MLB AVG 6.9% 37.9% 5.4% 49.5% 15.2% 43.9%

Hitters seem to have had little trouble getting a bat on Anderson’s four-seamer, which is perhaps why he’s started throwing more sinkers in recent years. the swing-and-miss rate on his slider isn’t as sky high as I expected but it is still above-average, especially these last three years. All three pitches are far, far better than the MLB average when it comes to getting a ground ball. That’s not a surprise given his career grounder rate.

So yeah, it does seem like Anderson’s career strikeout rate is so low because hitters don’t have much trouble putting his fastballs in play. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, quick ground balls are a good way to be efficient, but sometimes a pitcher needs a strikeout more than a ground ball. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild has a history of improving strikeout rates, mostly by ratcheting up breaking ball usage a notch, but I’m not sure how many more sliders Anderson can realistically throw. He could maybe change his pitch selection and throw more sliders early in the count.

Anderson’s stuff is good. He has a heavy sinker hitters can’t lift in the air and that’s a real weapon in tiny Yankee Stadium. His slider misses bats even though it doesn’t show up in his overall strikeout numbers. There’s plenty to work with here. Stuff and performance really isn’t Anderson’s issue. It’s staying on the field.

Contract Estimates

Given the injury history, it’s clear Anderson is a one-year contract guy at this point. I would be very surprised if someone guaranteed him multiple years at this point, even if he is only 26. Here are some contract estimates:

I know it’s cool to say there’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal but I don’t really buy that. We all lived through the Kevin Youkilis era, right? That was a bad one-year deal. Anderson’s injury history means there is a chance of getting zero return on the contract and that money (and the associated luxury tax) will just be flushed away for nothing.

That said, those contract estimates seem sensible to me, mostly because he’s still so very young and actually has some upside to offer. There’s no way the Yankees or whoever else signs Anderson could count on him for 200 or even 150 innings next year. I think you’d have to hope for 100 innings and take anything else after that as a huge bonus, especially if he pitches like he’s capable of pitching.

The Yankees already have a ton of injury risk in their rotation and I’m not sure it makes sense to double down on that risk and add someone like Anderson. He’d be better as the second pitching addition — re-sign Brandon McCarthy to shore up the staff and then bring in Anderson as the upside lottery ticket/depth guy to be the fifth starter, for example. I’m intrigued and think Anderson is a nice roll of the dice guy. But he couldn’t be the only pitching addition New York makes.