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.

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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.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: Brandon McCarthy

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

For the umpteenth consecutive offseason, the Yankees need to add a starter to their rotation this winter, preferably two. Ivan Nova (elbow) won’t be back until at least May while CC Sabathia (knee), Masahiro Tanaka (elbow), and Michael Pineda (shoulder) will all carry injury concerns heading into 2015. Shane Greene and David Phelps are nice pitchers I would rather see penciled in as the sixth and seventh starters rather than numbers four and five.

Earlier this month we heard the Yankees were planning to “aggressively” pursue re-signing right-hander Brandon McCarthy, which makes total sense. He was excellent during his brief time in pinstripes, pitching to a 2.89 ERA (3.22 FIP) in 14 starts and 90.1 innings, and usually that’s enough to get a guy a new contract. McCarthy is arguably the fourth best free agent starter on the market behind Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, and James Shields though, making him a popular second tier target. Stint in pinstripes aside, is McCarthy actually worth pursuing? Let’s look.

A Quick Note About Performance

During his year and a half with the Diamondbacks, McCarthy was bad. Just … bad. I don’t know how else to put it. He made 40 starts and threw 244.2 innings with Arizona and had a 4.75 ERA and 3.78 FIP. That’s bad. If you allow more than one run for every two innings pitched over that many innings, it’s bad. You really have to squint your eyes and adore the peripherals to ignore the fact that lots of runs were being scored against McCarthy. That is the pitcher’s job at the end the day. Keep runs off the board. Style points don’t matter.

McCarthy reinvented himself as a sinker/cutter pitcher with the Athletics way back in the day — this story has already been told a million times, no need to repeat it here — and he had a 3.29 ERA and 3.22 FIP in 43 starts and 281.2 innings with Oakland during the 2011-12 seasons. That looks an awful lot like the numbers he put during his short time in the Bronx, no? The same FIP and the ERA difference could be sample size noise or the result of the decline in offense around baseball. Or both!

I think it’s important to note here that, within the last few years, a lot of players joined the D’Backs and got worse and/or left the D’Backs and got better. That’s part of the reason GM Kevin Towers was fired in September. Players who are/were thriving elsewhere stunk with Arizona. McCarthy falls into that group. So does Ian Kennedy, Trevor Cahill, Martin Prado, Justin Upton, Trevor Bauer, and a bunch of others. It’s happened often enough that it has to be something more than a coincidence at this point.

Change In Stuff & Pitch Selection

Now let’s get down to the nuts and bolts. As you know, McCarthy said the D’Backs did not let him throw his cutter during his time there but the Yankees, who are as cutter-happy as any organization in baseball, allowed him to throw it. It’s easy to attribute his success in New York to the return of his cutter, except that’s not really what happened. Here’s a table from our Season Review post:

% Cutters % Sinkers % Curves % Four-Seamers
2011-12 with A’s 41.3% 36.1% 18.9% 3.7%
2013-14 with D’Backs 23.6% 49.2% 20.1% 7.1%
2014 with Yankees 18.8% 36.0% 20.9% 24.2%

McCarthy only threw 10.3% cutters with the D’Backs before the trade this past season, so yes, he did technically throw more cutters with the Yankees this year. But compared to last season (34.6%) he actually threw fewer. He did throw more sinkers with Arizona, which jibes with the alleged “no cutters” policy, and his curveball usage has remained approximately the same over the years.

It’s possible there is some PitchFX weirdness going on here, particularly during McCarthy’s time with the Yankees. Maybe the system misclassified some cutters as four-seamers — cutters are usually misclassified as sliders and vice versa — and boy, that would explain a lot. Maybe McCarthy actually did throw more straight four-seam fastballs in New York. That could have led to his increased effectiveness as well. I’ve always thought having multiple fastballs was a good foundation for success despite having zero evidence to support it. Just one of those things I believe.

Anyway, here’s something else from our Season Review post. McCarthy added a frickin’ ton of velocity — across the board, not just the fastball(s) — this past summer:

Brandon McCarthy velocity

That’s not a slight uptick in velocity. McCarthy added 3.2 mph to his average curveball velocity, 2.0 mph to his sinker, and 1.5 mph to his cutter from 2013 to 2014. That’s substantial and who in the world knows if it will last next year. We’ll get into McCarthy’s injury history and offseason workout routine in a bit, but adding roughly two miles an hour to your arsenal across the board at age 31 is not something that happens all that often.

So, with that in mind, let’s take a second to look at the effectiveness of McCarthy’s individual pitches over the years. I’m not going to lump this together by team or whatever, I want see what happened each year because a pitcher’s stuff does change over time. Guys add movement and lose velocity, stuff like that, often unintentionally. It’s unavoidable. The innings build up and the arm can’t do what it once did. Here are the swing-and-miss rates and ground ball rates of McCarthy’s individual pitches over the years (via Brooks Baseball):

CT Whiff% CT GB% SNK Whiff% SNK GB% CB Whiff% CB GB% FB Whiff% FB GB%
2011 12.9% 38.0% 4.0% 53.5% 9.6% 54.5% 5.0% 0.0%
2012 10.2% 35.1% 4.3% 41.4% 9.9% 48.1% 1.9% 40.0%
2013 8.0% 37.7% 4.5% 58.2% 7.9% 54.3% 11.6% 33.3%
2014 8.6% 44.4% 8.4% 59.1% 11.4% 54.5% 14.6% 39.4%
MLB AVG 9.7% 43.0% 5.4% 49.5% 11.1% 48.7% 6.9% 37.9%

That table isn’t as messy as I expected. Phew. It’s best to read each column top to bottom, don’t try reading across each row.

McCarthy had four pitches that were above-average at getting ground balls this past season and three that were above-average at getting swings and misses. That is really, really good. You’ll be quite successful if you can do that. In the past though, only the sinker and curveball were reliably above-average at getting ground balls and McCarthy’s best swing-and-miss pitch was his cutter … until he got to Arizona.

Whiff rates and grounder rates tend to stabilize very quickly, within the first 100-150 pitches of each individual pitch, a level McCarthy has easily cleared the last four years. There’s no sample size issue this year. The improvement in McCarthy’s swing-and-miss and ground ball rates seem to be tied directly to his uptick in velocity. More velocity means more swings and misses, that’s been analyzed and correlated to death. The same is not necessarily true for ground balls overall, but it could be for McCarthy given the movement on his pitches.

This brings us back to where we were before: is McCarthy going to sustain this improved velocity? Normally the answer would be no, a 31-year-old pitcher with McCarthy’s of injury history won’t continue throwing this hard, but there might be other factors in play here, specifically his health. I’ll get into that in a bit, I promise. The other question is can he remain effective even if the velocity isn’t here to stay? I don’t see why not, velocity isn’t everything, but at the end of the day we’re not going to know the answer to either of those questions until he actually gets back on a mound in 2015 and pitches.

The Ugly Injury History

McCarthy’s injury history is scary as hell. It’s almost all shoulder problems too, which are extra scary. McCarthy nearly died after being hit in the head by a line drive in September 2012 — he needed emergency surgery for a epidural hemorrhage, a brain contusion, and a skull fracture — but, as serious as that was, it was a fluke injury and he has since made a full recovery. The shoulder problems are chronic.

From 2007-13, McCarthy visited the disabled list at least once each season with some kind of arm injury. Again, most of them shoulder problems. Here’s the list:

  • 2007: Stress fracture in his shoulder, missed 31 days.
  • 2008: Forearm/elbow tightness and inflammation, missed 157 days.
  • 2009: Stress fracture in his shoulder, missed 88 days.
  • 2010: Stress fracture in his shoulder, missed 172 days.
  • 2011: Stress fracture in his shoulder, missed 45 days.
  • 2012: Shoulder soreness/strain, missed 86 days.
  • 2013: Shoulder soreness, missed 63 days.
  • 2014: Healthy!

Like I said, scary. Scary scary scary. But the good news is McCarthy stayed healthy in 2014 — he threw 200 innings on the nose between the Yankees and D’Backs after never throwing more than 170.2 innings in a season — and it has now been three full years since he last suffered a stress fracture in his shoulder. Soreness and strains keep you off the mound just as well, but “stress fracture” just sounds scarier. Maybe I have that backwards and the soreness and strains are the bigger issue. I’m not a doctor, I just play one on a blog.

In an effort to stay healthy this past season, McCarthy changed up his offseason routine last winter and focused on getting stronger. “I spent a lot of time in the off-season working on that, doing everything I could to get to a place where I was as strong as I could be physically and mentally,” he said to Nick Piecoro in Spring Training. “That’s shown up early. I feel like myself again. With that, in games I’m sharper, more focused, and the results kind of follow that. Now it’s just staying in that same place.”

The new offseason routine apparently worked, because McCarthy stayed healthy all season and he came out throwing much harder than ever before. There is a tangible reason behind the improved health and velocity. It’s not like he kept doing what he doing before but suddenly stayed healthy and started throwing harder this past summer. Remember when the Yankees signed A.J. Burnett? Almost all the talk at the time was about how much of an injury risk he was, yet Burnett stayed healthy and has thrown at least 185 innings in each of the last seven years. Injury prone pitchers can suddenly become durable, even after age 30.

Contract Estimates

Let’s defer to people a lot smarter than me for what it might take to sign Mr. McCarthy this winter:

Jon Heyman reported last week that McCarthy is waiting to see what Lester, Scherzer, and Shields get before signing himself. I’m sure he’d sign quickly if a team makes him a nice offer, but waiting to see what those three get isn’t a bad strategy. It’s not like the pitching market will dry up completely once those guys sign, and McCarthy would only make himself that much more valuable by being the best available starter later in the offseason.

Given what we’ve seen early this offseason as well as the last two or three offseasons, I’m guessing the first team to step forward and offer that third guaranteed year will get McCarthy. A deal that long can be scary for a pitcher with his injury history, so the team would either have to be very desperate or very comfortable with his medicals. The Yankees had McCarthy for a few weeks this year and got to see his work ethic and that sort of stuff firsthand. That matters. It doesn’t hurt that they had plenty of time to review his medicals and various routines either.

If the Yankees are serious about avoided long-term contracts this offseason — we’ve already seen reports to the contrary and it’s not even Thanksgiving, so who knows — they’re unlikely to find a better pitcher on a short-term contract that McCarthy. There are major concerns about his injury history and legitimate questions about whether the velocity uptick is a long-term thing, but good luck finding a non-elite pitcher without some kind of question marks. That the Yankees are planning to “aggressively” pursue McCarthy tells me they are comfortable with the medicals, and that’s a necessary step one for bringing him back to New York.

Scouting the Free Agent Market: Max Scherzer

Max Scherzer Yankees
(AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Pay close attention to the wording of this quote, which surfaced in a story earlier this month about the Yankees and the free agent market, via Mark Feinsand of the Daily News:

According to a source, the Yankees have no plans to pursue either [Max] Scherzer or [Jon] Lester, the top two free agents on the market this winter. Shields, the third-best free-agent starter, is also off the Bombers’ radar, as is Sandoval, the Giants’ postseason hero who was given a $15.3 million qualifying offer by San Francisco before Monday’s deadline.

What it doesn’t say: That the Yankees have plans not to pursue these players.

Currently I have no plans to leave the house today. But if I open the fridge to make lunch and see that we’re out of turkey, I’ll probably visit the grocery story. The circumstances changed.

If I had plans not to leave the house, well, maybe I scrounge up something else for lunch. I really didn’t want to leave the house for whatever reason, so the circumstances changing doesn’t phase me. Perhaps I even accounted for there not being turkey in the fridge and adjusted accordingly before even opening the fridge.

It therefore comes as little surprise* that Jon Heyman reports that the Yankees might indeed pursue Scherzer. Between Masahiro Tanaka‘s elbow and CC Sabathia‘s knee, not to mention his recently declining performance, the Yankees have huge question marks atop the rotation. Scherzer, the top-ranked free agent per MLBTR’s list (and predicted to land on the Yankees), could help carry the load if Tanaka and Sabathia falter.

*For a number of reasons.

Scherzer, the No. 11 pick in the 2006 draft, took a big step forward in 2012. While his ERA was right in line with his career average, his strikeout rate jumped to 11.1 from his 8.7 career average. He’s averaged more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings since. That set him up for his Cy Young season in 2013, followed by another high quality season in 2014.

Let’s dig in.

Ace in His Prime

It took a while for him to blossom, but Scherzer as a bona fide ace at this point in his career. After cruising to the AL Cy Young Award in 2013, capturing 28 of 30 first place votes, he followed up with a solid season and a fifth place finish in the Cy Young voting.

From a fielding independent perspective, Scherzer’s 2014 was every bit as good as his 2013. His strikeout, walk, and home run numbers remained consistent. In 2014 he made one more start than in 2013, which accounts for the 5.2-inning discrepancy. The most noticeable difference was — you must have guessed it at this point — his BABIP: .259 in 2013 vs .315 in 2014. While the .259 figure is unsustainably low, the .315 number is a bit above both his career and the league averages.

That is to say, even if he doesn’t have another monster 2013 season in him, he seems capable of exceeding his 2014 performance in the future. Entering his age 30 season, there’s every chance he has one big Cy Young season left in his arm.

Where Scherzer ranks among MLB pitchers, 2013-2014

IP 434.2 6th
K% 28.3% 3rd
ERA 3.02 11th
FIP 2.79 6th

He’s not Clayton Kershaw. He’s not Felix Hernandez. But he’s in the conversation with pretty much everyone else.

The Necessary Durability

Max Scherzer
(AP Photo)

Early in his career, Scherzer looked like he might have injury troubles. A bout of biceps tendinitis towards the end of college hurt his draft stock. Considered the top right-handed pitching prospect before the 2006 season, he was the sixth one selected in the draft. (Although can we even count the Pirates’ absurd decision to draft Brad Lincoln fourth?)

Shoulder inflammation caused Scherzer to miss time in 2008 and 2009, which perhaps led the Diamondbacks to trade him to the Tigers in exchange for Edwin Jackson and Ian Kennedy (from the Yankees, who received Curtis Granderson).

From there, though, Scherzer’s injury slate is as clean as you can expect from a pitcher. The shoulder problem cropped up in 2012 — the Tigers termed it fatigue — but it has had seemingly no long-term effects. Scherzer hasn’t been on the DL since the start of the 2009 season.

Scherzer also has relatively little mileage on his arm, at least when compared to other free agent pitchers. From Heyman:

One reason they like Scherzer is an unusual lack of wear and tear on his arm. For instance, he didn’t reach 1,230 innings until he was 29, compared to 26 for Sabathia, and an amazing 24 by Tanaka, who obviously started young.

Among the top free-agent pitchers, Scherzer has thrown by far the fewest pitches, with 20,954, to 26,321 for Lester, and 29,461 for James Shields.

Fly Ball Pitcher in a Small Park

If there is any negative to Scherzer, beyond the standard risk of a long-term contract to a 30-year-old, it is his fly ball tendencies. In 2013 and 2014 Scherzer had the 10th lowest ground ball rate in the majors. That might have worked well at Comerica — rotation-mate Justin Verlander induced the 17th-fewest ground balls in that span — but Yankee Stadium is a different story entirely.

Would it be sensationalist of me to point out that Phil Hughes induced the sixth-fewest ground balls in 2013-2014? That worked very well for him at Target Field, even got him a couple of down-ballot Cy Young votes. I needn’t even describe his performance at Yankee Stadium the year prior.

No, Scherzer will not go from Cy Young candidate to Phil Frickin Hughes just because he’s moving to the same park where Phil failed. But it’s something to consider.

Contract Estimates

As the #1 ranked free agent on basically everyone’s lists, Scherzer is due for quite a payday. This contract will set Scherzer, and his children, and probably his grandchildren, for life. Scherzer already rejected six years and $144 million from the Tigers. So how much more will he get?

Bowden is uncanny with his picks, and seven years at $27 million per year seems well within the realm of possibility. The last free agent starter of Scherzer’s caliber was Zack Greinke, who got six years at $24.5 million per year following the 2012 season. Perhaps the presences of Lester and Shields will keep Scherzer’s price closer to $175 or $168 million, but it’s hard to bet against the higher number at this point.

In Conclusion

The Yankees need pitching. The only starters they can reasonably pencil in on Opening Day are Michael Pineda, David Phelps, and Shane Greene. Sabathia’s knee could blow out in Spring Training. So could Masahiro Tanaka’s elbow. Since Phelps and Greene are better suited to depth roles, rather than being relied upon, bringing in two pitchers might be necessary for the Yankees this off-season.

If they want the best, Scherzer is there for the signing. It would bump up their payroll a couple orders of magnitude higher than the $189 million goal they failed to reach last off-season. But as FanGraphs writer Kiley McDaniel heard from a Yankees source: “they could break even financially with a $500 million payroll expenditure (including luxury tax).”

Missing the postseason two straight years has undoubtedly hurt the bottom line. If the Yankees are ready to spend money in order to make money, they might not have any better place to invest than Scherzer.