What Went Right: Hiroki Kuroda

The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with the team’s nominal ace for two years running.

(Kyle Rivas/Getty)
(Kyle Rivas/Getty)

It’s hard to believe that once upon a time, there was legitimate concern about how Hiroki Kuroda would handle a small Yankee Stadium and the AL East after opening his big league career in spacious Dodger Stadium and the generally pitcher-friendly NL West. Those are two extremely different run environments, nevermind the general concern associated with a pitcher on the wrong side of 35.

Kuroda showed last season that those concerns were unwarranted by pitching to a 3.32 ERA and 3.86 FIP in a career-high 219.2 innings. He fit in so well that the Yankees gave him a nice big raise and brought him back for 2013, and pretty much no one had a problem with it. Why would they? Kuroda’s awesome. He was getting up there in age but it was a one-year contract. The risk was small, the reward potentially high.

It’s easy to forget that the start of Kuroda’s season was only a fraction of an inch away from being disastrous. In the second inning of his first start, he reached for a Shane Victorino line drive with his barehand and took the ball right off his fingertips. Joe Girardi and the trainer came out to look at him, but Kuroda ultimately stayed in the game after a few test pitches. It was obvious he wasn’t right though, he plunked two of the next four batters and walked another on four pitches. He was removed from the game after that.

Tests showed no break thankfully, just a contusion that needed a few days to heal. Kuroda made his next start five days later and still seemed to be showing some lingering effects from the liner as he walked four in 5.1 innings against the Indians. The Yankees took advantage of an off-day to give the right-hander and his bruised finger some extra rest, and the results were immediate. In his third start of the year, Kuroda held the Orioles to five singles and zero walks while striking out five in a complete-game shutout.

That game was the beginning of a nine-start stretch in which Kuroda allowed only 13 runs (1.92 ERA and 3.28 FIP) in 61 innings, holding batters to a .204/.234/.321 batting line. He completed seven full innings of work in seven of those nine starts. Believe it or not, his worst outing of the season — five runs on eight hits in only two innings against the Orioles — is included in this nine-start stretch.

Kuroda had an effective but ultimately average month of June (3.92 ERA and 4.43 FIP in 39 innings across six starts) before putting together an utterly dominant month of July. He made five starts — one apiece against the Orioles, Twins, Red Sox, Rangers, and Dodgers, so not exactly the easiest competition — and allowed two runs total, pitching to a 0.55 ERA and 2.33 FIP in 33 innings. Kuroda went at least seven full innings in four of the five starts and the only reason he didn’t work deep into the other game was a lengthy rain delay that cut his outing short.

In 19 first half starts, Kuroda pitched to a 2.65 ERA (3.60 FIP) in 118.2 innings. Only Felix Hernandez (2.53 ERA) had been better at preventing runs among AL hurlers, and obviously he enjoys a much more pitcher-friendly atmosphere in Seattle. Kuroda did not make the All-Star team mostly because his teammates never scored runs and his win-loss record sat at a forgettable 8-6. Chris Tillman, he of the 11-3 record (3.95 ERA and 4.94 FIP) got the final pitching spot on the AL squad.

As neat as an All-Star Game berth would have been, Kuroda probably needed the rest more than anything. He was able to take a full week off between starts thanks to the break and he continued to dominate early in the second half — 1.25 ERA and 2.02 FIP in 36 innings across his first five starts. Following eight shutout innings against the Angels on August 12th, Kuroda owned a league-leading 2.33 ERA (3.20 FIP) and was a legitimate Cy Young candidate. Not an “he’s good and a Yankee so he should be a Cy Young candidate,” a real live Cy Young candidate.

Unfortunately, Kuroda hit a wall in mid-August, the same wall he hit in mid-August last year. I assume it is due to his age and his workload — he stopped throwing his regular between-starts bullpen session in an effort to stay fresh late in the season — and a million other things. Regardless, his Cy Young hopes crashed and burned with eight dreadful starts to close out the year. Here is the carnage in table form:

Starts Innings/Start ERA FIP WHIP K/BB HR/9 Opp. Batters
4/1 to 8/12 24 6.4 2.33 3.20 1.02 3.79 0.70 .226/.265/.338
8/13 to 9/29 8 5.8 6.56 4.46 1.62 2.86 1.54 .316/.364/.551

I wasn’t exaggerating, that’s really awful! Kuroda was an absolute disaster in his final eight starts. That batting line against is in the neighborhood of what Robinson Cano hit this summer (.314/.383/.516). Kuroda turned every batter he faced in his final eight starts into Cano with more power. Seriously. As soon as the Yankees were eliminated from postseason contention, they effectively shut him down for the season. They never called it that, but they did skip his final start.

The Yankees faded out of the race partly because of Kuroda’s poor finish, but then again they wouldn’t even have been in the race in the first place had he not pitched so well during the first four-and-a-half months of the season. Those disastrous last eight starts, exactly one-quarter of his season, doesn’t erase all of the good he did before then. That he pitched to a 3.31 ERA and 3.56 FIP in 201.1 innings overall despite that ugly finish is a testament to how outstanding he was for much of the summer. The guy was truly dominant and the anchor of the staff.

It will take quite a bit of research to answer definitively, but my hunch is that Kuroda was one of the best one-year pitching contracts in baseball history. Not just Yankees history (that’s a given), but all baseball history. Heck, he might be on that list twice for these last two seasons. He’s been that good. New York made Kuroda a qualifying offer before the deadline earlier this week, so if he leaves for another MLB team, they’ll receive a draft pick in return. There is reason to be concerned about him going forward given his age and how he finished, but there’s not doubt #HIROK was one of the few things to go right for the Yankees in 2013.

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What Went Right: Boone Logan

The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with a bullpen stalwart and one of the most undeserved punching bags in recent Yankees history (I’m guilty).

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Given all the money they’ve spent over the years, it’s pretty obvious the Yankees value having a quality left-handed reliever in the bullpen. And they should. The AL East is full of powerful lefty bats, from David Ortiz to Chris Davis to Colby Rasmus to … uh … James Loney. Once upon a time they had to deal with guys like Carlos Pena and Carlos Delgado as well. It definitely makes sense for New York to have that shutdown southpaw. For the fourth straight year, Boone Logan was that guy.

Fittingly, Logan’s season was book-ended by elbow problems. He was on the 2013 Yankees, after all. The team took it easy on him in Spring Training — Logan only appeared in four Grapefruit League games, less than half what a regular big league reliever usually makes — because of a tender elbow, which likely had something to do with his a) career-high 55.1 innings and league-leading 80 appearances in 2012, and b) extreme slider usage (51.4% in 2012 and 44.8% from 2011-2012). Lots of appearances — not to mention all the times he warmed up but didn’t get into the game — and lots of sliders are usually bad for the elbow.

Despite the elbow issue, Logan was his usual self for most of the regular season. He had his first notable meltdown on May 5th and even that was just a solo homer by MVP candidate/right-handed batter Josh Donaldson to break a tie in the eighth inning. Logan allowed only three runs between that game and the All-Star break, striking out 26 and walking three (one intentionally) in 16.1 innings across 27 appearances. He was dominating both lefties (.189/.225/.324, 50.0 K%) and righties (.190/.217/.333, 26.1 K%).

Logan hit a rough patch in mid-August, allowing four runs on four base-runners in one full inning of work across two appearances against the Angels. He allowed one run in nine appearances going into that stretch and followed with seven straight scoreless outings. It was just a hiccup. When August came to an end, Logan had a 2.68 ERA and 3.51 FIP in 37 innings across 56 appearances. Lefties hit .230/.266/.392 with a 38.8% strikeout rate against him during the first five months of the 2013 season. A little too much power (three homers), but fine overall.

For all intents and purposes, Logan’s season came to an end on September 6th. That was the game in which he inherited a bases loaded situation and allowed the grand slam to Mike Napoli. I know you remember that game. He left that game with what was originally called tightness in his biceps, and subsequent tests showed only inflammation. Logan received a cortisone shot and started a throwing program, but he didn’t improve and headed to see Dr. James Andrews. Andrews found a bone spur in Boone’s pitching elbow. He was given the okay to continue pitching but Joe Girardi only used him once more that season: on September 24th, when he struck out the only man he faced (Sam Fuld).

(Dave Reginek/Getty)
(Dave Reginek/Getty)

Logan ended the season having thrown 39 innings across 61 appearances, posting a 3.23 ERA and 3.82 FIP overall. Obviously his primary job was to neutralize lefties and he did that, limiting same-side hitters to a .215/.274/.377 (.281 wOBA) line with very good to great strikeout (14.57 K/9 and 40.0 K%), walk (2.57 BB/9 and 7.1 BB%), and ground ball (44.2%) rates. Among left-handed pitchers, only Clayton Kershaw (41.5%) had a higher strikeout rate against lefty batters this summer (min. 20 IP). In the quirky stat department, Logan led all relievers in appearances in which he struck out every batter he faced this year with 12. Kinda cool, I guess.

Homeruns were a bit of a problem for Logan this summer, as he allowed a career-high seven dingers in those 39 innings (1.62 HR/9). That’s a lot of homers even for Yankee Stadium, especially for a pitcher with a very good 47.3% ground ball rate overall. His 20.0% HR/FB ratio was more than double the 9.3% HR/FB ratio he posted during his first three years in pinstripes. The long ball spike could be due to a number of things, including the elbow issue that he acknowledged had been bothering him all year. The homers were a bit of a bugaboo this summer.

Logan had surgery to remove the bone spur right after the season and is expected to both start throwing again in December and be ready in time for Spring Training. He will become a free agent in the coming days and has already expressed an interest in returning to the New York, though it’s unclear if the feeling is mutual. The Yankees are trimming payroll and lefty reliever sure seems like a potential spot to save money. Either way, Logan capped off a rather successful four-year stint in pinstripes with another very good performance this year. He has been, by far, the team’s best left-handed reliever since Mike Stanton.

What Went Right: David Robertson

The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with the team’s super-setup man and likely heir to Mariano Rivera‘s throne.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Over the last three seasons, the Yankees have been very spoiled in the eighth and ninth innings. Regardless of whether Mariano Rivera or injury fill-in Rafael Soriano was closing out games in the ninth, the one constant since 2011 has been the elite performance of David Robertson in the eighth inning. He has emerged as one of baseball’s very best relievers and has reached the point where dominant performances are expected, not a surprise.

The 2013 season was more of the same from the 28-year-old Robertson. He pitched to a 2.04 ERA and 2.61 FIP in 66.1 innings as the primary bridge to Rivera, only twice going through a rough patch. Robertson allowed five runs in a 5.2-inning, ten-day span in late April and then five runs in a 3.1-inning, eight-day span in early-September. That’s it. Two-thirds of his season runs allowed in 13.7% of his innings. The Yankees actually sat Robertson down for five days after the hiccup in September because of fatigue, which somewhat explains the poor performance.

From May 1st through September 1st, a span of 48 appearances and 46.1 innings, Robertson allowed five runs and 43 base-runners. Opponents hit .182/.257/.252 against him during that time, which is more or less what David Adams hit for the big league team this summer (.193/.252/.286). He was pretty much automatic during those four months — Robertson didn’t blow a single lead and took only one loss, which came when he allowed a run in a tie game. There was every reason to feel confident when the Yankees handed a lead over to him.

Overall, Robertson struck out 77 batters (10.45 K/9 and 29.4 K%) and walked only 18 batters (2.44 BB/9 and 6.9 BB%) while posting a career-best 50.9% ground ball rate. The most important thing to me is those walks. Somewhere around the All-Star break last season, Robertson simply stopped walking guys. It’s very cool but also kinda weird. Here, look:

Robertson walks

This is a guy who walked 4.72 batters per nine innings (12.2% of batters faced) during the first four seasons of his career. Robertson then went on to post a 4.38 BB/9 and 11.4 BB% in the first half of 2012, but since then? A 2.20 BB/9 and 6.2 BB%. For whatever reason, either improved mechanics or improved confidence or something else entirely (all of the above?), Robertson cut his walk rate in half after the All-Star break last year. He followed up this season by showing it was no fluke. That’s probably the best thing the Yankees could have seen out of their setup man in 2013.

After three straight dominant seasons, Robertson has both raised expectations and put himself in position to be key long-term piece for the Yankees. Unlike much of the veteran dreck on the roster, it’s easy to see him as part of the next Yankees team to make the postseason and contend for a World Series title. Robertson is due to become a free agent next winter and barring a catastrophic injury, he’ll get paid top of the relief market dollars. He’s earned it. New York could bring in a Proven Closer™ to replace Mo this winter — it’s hard not to notice Joe Nathan will become a free agent in about a week — but they have the perfect internal candidate. Robertson has shown everything a team could possibly want to see out of a potential closer and he’s earned the opportunity to inherit the ninth inning in my opinion. Sustaining that improved walk rate this year clinched it.

What Went Right: Adam Warren

The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with the only Yankees rookie to make an overall positive impression.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

This past season was a very important one for right-hander Adam Warren. Coming into 2013, he was a 25-year-old who had put together back-to-back good but not great seasons with Triple-A Scranton and appeared destined for a third stint in Northeast Pennsylvania because of the numbers crunch. Instead, injuries to Phil Hughes and Clay Rapada opened roster spots and Warren made the team out of Spring Training.T

hanks to Hiroki Kuroda trying to snag a line drive with his bare hand, it took all of two games before the Yankees needed to use their long man this year. Kuroda exited the game early and in came Warren against the high-powered Red Sox, against whom he allowed just one run in 5.1 innings of work. Warren struck out four, walked one, and threw 86 total pitches after being fully stretched out as a starter in camp. It was an excellent follow-up to his ugly big league debut last summer.

As the long man, playing time was predictably sporadic. Warren made just three more appearances in April before becoming something of a regular in May, throwing 15.2 innings across six appearances. By the end of that month, the right-hander was sitting on a 2.10 ERA and 3.20 FIP in 25.2 innings of work. That included three appearances of at least three shutout innings and four appearances of at least three innings and no more than one run allowed. It’s a difficult role to excel in, yet Warren was doing it.

Appearances were again infrequent in June — he only pitched three times that month and was actually optioned to Triple-A at one point, but he never appeared in a game in the minors and was recalled four days later when Mark Teixeira went on the DL — but that month also featured Warren’s best outing of the season, when he chucked six innings of shutout relief against the Athletics in the marathon 18-inning loss on June 13th:

Warren struck out four, walked two, and allowed only four hits while throwing 85 pitches in the appearance. The Yankees went on to lose the game, but not because of their long man. He was nails.

In 43.2 innings prior to the All-Star break, Warren managed a 3.09 ERA and 3.83 FIP. His strikeout (7.21 K/9 and 19.1 K) and homerun (1.28 HR/9 and 12.8% HR/FB) rates were just okay, but he was limiting walks (2.47 BB/9 and 6.6 BB%) and getting ground balls (48.5%). By no means was he star or even a super important cog in the pinstriped machine, but Warren had established himself as a big leaguer. A young big leaguer at that, something the Yankees desperately needed.

The second half of the season didn’t go as well — 3.78 ERA and 4.97 FIP in 33.1 innings — particularly a five-game stretch after the All-Star break. Warren allowed seven runs on ten hits (three homers) and six walks in 9.1 innings across those five appearances, but thankfully it was just a minor hiccup. He recovered in mid-August and closed out the season well, allowing just seven runs in his final 24 innings (2.63 ERA). That includes five scoreless innings in a spot start in Game 160, after the Yankees had been eliminated.

All told, Warren pitched to a 3.39 ERA and 4.32 FIP in 77 innings across two spot starts and 32 long relief appearances in 2013. He made six appearances of at least four innings and in those games he surrendered only four runs total (1.27 ERA), three of which came in one outing. Joe Girardi even used him in some seventh inning setup situations as his bullpen got worn down and depleted by injury later in the season. It is worth nothing, however, that Warren’s platoon splits were pretty drastic:

TBF K% BB% GB% HR/9 Opp. OPS+ FIP
Overall 331 19.3% 9.1% 45.3% 1.17 114 4.32
vs. RHP 158 21.5% 8.9% 48.4% 0.72 83 3.47
vs. LHP 173 17.3% 9.3% 41.7% 1.60 140 5.13

Does that mean Warren should never face left-handed batters again? No, at least not yet. We’ve got a long way to go before we relegate him to righty specialist status. Getting lefties out is definitely something he will have to work on going forward though, especially if he’s going to continue being a multi-inning guy.

I think an important part of the season for Warren was that he stayed true to his starter roots and threw five different pitches in relief. According to PitchFX, he threw his low-to-mid-90s four-seamer, low-90s sinker, mid-80s slider, and low-80s changeup all at least 18% of the time. He broke out his upper-70s curveball about 11% of time. Most guys stop using their third or fourth (or fifth) pitches and stick with their two best out of the bullpen, but not Warren. He mixed it up and as a result, he should come to Spring Training with an overall better feel for all of his pitches.

When he does come to camp next year, Warren is expected to compete for a rotation spot, pending the team’s moves this coming offseason. He showed he can turn over a lineup more than once as a long reliever this year and, if nothing else, he’s earned the opportunity to compete as a starter next year. Even if the competition is rigged in favor of someone else — the Yankees are known to do that from time to time, you know — Warren still deserves a nice long look during Grapefruit League play. New York didn’t have much success with young players or their farm system this year, but Warren was a definite bright spot. He could have easily stalled out by repeating Triple-A a third time, but instead he got an opportunity with the big league team and took advantage.

What Went Right: Alfonso Soriano

The 2013 season is over and now it’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with the best position player acquired by any team at the trade deadline.

(Ron Antonelli/Getty)
(Ron Antonelli/Getty)

Coming into the season, I think we all knew the Yankees were not going to hit for the same kind of power they have in the past. This was even before Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira got hurt in Spring Training. You don’t replace Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, and Alex Rodriguez with Ichiro Suzuki, Chris Stewart, and Kevin Youkilis and not expect to hit fewer homeruns. Not realistically, anyway.

Once Granderson and Teixeira (and Youkilis) got hurt, the lack of power was alarming. At one point Yankees went nine straight games without a homer, their longest such streak since going ten straight in 1984. They went four straight home games without a dinger for the first time in new Yankee Stadium history and just the third time this century. The Yankees hit 18 homers in June and just ten (!) in July, the first time they hit 18 or fewer homers during a calender month since April 1989 (min. 20 games). They managed to do it in back-to-back months. Their 78th game of the season was their 31st homer-less game, matching 2012’s total. It was bad.

Aside from the lack of power in general, the biggest problem specifically was the complete lack of thump from the right side of the plate. From June 25th through July 28th, a span of 477 plate appearances, the Yankees did not get a single homer from a right-handed batter. Not one. Literally zero in 28 team games and more than a calendar month. That’s just unfathomable. Triple check the numbers kind of unbelievable. And yet, it’s true. The Yankees didn’t have the ability to close the gap or extend the lead quickly with one swing of the bat and it cost them games all summer long.

On July 26th, after about a week’s worth of rumors, team ownership pulled the trigger on a trade with the Cubs that brought Alfonso Soriano back to New York in exchange for minor leaguer right-hander Corey Black. Brian Cashman said he preferred to wait rather than trade a good but not great pitching prospect for a good but not great corner outfielder, but ownership wanted Soriano and what ownership wants, ownership gets. The Cubs ate $17.7M of the $24.5M or so left on Soriano’s contract to facilitate the deal.

Just like that, the Yankees had a legitimate right-handed power source. Soriano whacked ten homers in his final 21 games with the Cubs and that carried right over into pinstripes. He went deep in his third game back with the team and 12 times in his first 32 games with New York. During a four-game rampage from August 13th through the 16th, Soriano went 13-for-18 (.722) with five homers and 18 runs driven in. That tied the all-time record for runs driven in during a four-game span in baseball history. Here’s where Soriano ranked in MLB following the trade (min. 200 plate appearances for the rate stats):

AVG OBP SLG wRC+ HR RBI ISO fWAR
Soriano 0.256 0.325 0.525 130 17 49 0.269 1.8
MLB Rank 81st 63rd 11th 31st 1st 1st 3rd 40th

For the cost of a good minor league arm and $6.8M in salary obligation, the Yankees acquired a top 40 position player for the remainder of the regular season. Maybe top 30 or so depending on your opinion of fWAR and all that stuff. Despite not arriving until the trade deadline, Soriano finished second on the Yankees in homers (first among righties), third in runs driven in, and sixth in total bases (115). As an added bonus, New York finally had a player who could flip a bat, pimp a homer, and a put on a nice show:

This wasn’t a homer, but he thought it was and it’s the thought that counts.

Soriano was exactly what the Yankees needed: a legitimate middle of the order hitter who could hit the ball out of the park from the right side of the plate. His defense in left field was surprisingly solid as well, especially when ranging to his right towards the foul line. I thought he struggled a little bit on balls hit to his left and into the gap, but overall he was good defender. Certainly not below-average, which is what I had expected given his reputation with the Cubbies.

Unfortunately, Soriano’s heroics weren’t enough to get the Yankees into the postseason. He was the only player they acquired at the trade deadline, which meant many other holes (catcher, shortstop, rotation) were left unaddressed, and that led to the club falling short of a wild-card spot. Soriano did his part though. He was more than just the team’s best non-Robinson Cano hitter after the trade — he was one of the very best hitters in baseball and the team’s best trade deadline pickup since David Justice back in 2000.

What Went Right: Shawn Kelley

The 2013 season is over and we’ve had a week to catch our breath. It’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with a shrewd bullpen pickup.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Over the last few years, the Yankees have shown a knack for plucking useful relievers off the scrap heap. Guys like Brian Bruney, Cory Wade, Clay Rapada, Luis Ayala, Edwar Ramirez, and Cody Eppley have contributed to the team’s bullpen in recent years. They usually don’t stick around that long and their tenures tend to end uglily, but being able to consistently grab a guy off waivers or as a minor league free agent and squeeze 50 good innings out of him is a nice skill to have.

The Yankees landed this summer’s bargain bullpen pickup in a mid-February trade, on the very day pitchers and catchers officially reported for duty in Tampa. They shipped minor league outfielder Abe Almonte to the Mariners for right-hander Shawn Kelley, who Seattle had designated for assignment after signing Joe Saunders a week earlier. Given his resume — 3.52 ERA (4.12 FIP) with an 8.58 K/9 (22.6 K% and 2.74 BB/9 (7.4 BB%) in 128 career big league innings — it was unlikely the 29-year-old Kelley would have made it to the Yankees on waivers, hence the trade.

Now, believe it or not, New York actually had a surplus of relievers in camp. David Robertson and Boone Logan were returning, Mariano Rivera was back after his knee injury, and there were a bunch of people (myself included) who expected Joba Chamberlain to be a solid option for the middle innings as he got further away from elbow reconstruction. Both Rapada and Eppley were still around, as where David Phelps and Adam Warren. David Aardsma was with the team as well. Kelley looked like a guy who would be stashed in Triple-A Scranton — had a minor league option remaining — and await the inevitable call-up.

Instead, Kelley grabbed a bullpen spot and made the Opening Day roster because, as it tends to do, the pitching depth disappeared in a hurry. Rapada hurt his shoulder in camp and was eventually released, plus Phelps had to start the year in the rotation because Phil Hughes hurt his back and opened the year on the DL. That made Warren the long man by default. Kelley won the last bullpen spot over Aardsma because he was physically able to throw two innings at a time — Aardsma was a pure one-inning guy after missing what amounts to two full years following hip and Tommy John surgery. The Yankees wanted the flexibility.

Early in the season, it looked like the team kept the wrong guy. Kelley was a low-leverage reliever who had yet to gain Joe Girardi‘s trust, which is why only two of his eight April appearances came with the score separated by fewer than three runs. One of those two was in extra innings of a tie game, a last reliever standing kind of thing. Kelley was awful in the season’s first month, allowing nine runs on 12 hits (four homers!) and four walks in 10.1 innings (7.84 ERA and 6.34 FIP). Needless to say, he did not gain Girardi’s trust in April.

Thanks to a few strong outings in early-May and Joba’s oblique injury, Kelley slowly began to climb the bullpen pecking order. It helped that he suddenly started striking pretty much everyone out too. By relying on his sharp low-80s slider, Kelley allowed one run on three hits and a walk while striking out 18 of 28 batters faced (!) during a six-appearance, eight-inning stretch in the middle of May. Striking out 18 of 28 batters faced across however many appearances is off the charts good. Like, literally off the chart.

All of those strikeouts and a strong month of May landed Kelley regular seventh inning work — the setup man for the setup man, basically — even after Chamberlain returned from the DL. From May 1st through August 31st, a span of 105 team games, Kelley pitched to a 2.50 ERA (2.42 FIP) with 51 strikeouts (11.57 K/9 and 31.5 K%) while stranding 32 of 34 (!) inherited runners (94%) in 39.2 innings. That inherited runner strand rate is ridiculous. Kelley held batters to a .194/.278/.285 batting line during that stretch, more or less what David Adams hit for the big league team in 2013 (.193/.252/.286).

Like most of the pitching staff, Kelley fell apart in September (six runs in 3.1 innings), in part because of a bout with triceps inflammation. He is a two-time Tommy John surgery survivor, so arm trouble wasn’t the most surprising thing in the world. The poor final month left Kelley with an ordinary 4.39 ERA and 3.63 FIP in 53.1 innings, numbers that sell short how effective and important he was for much of the summer. An ugly April and an ugly September mask four months of excellence.

Kelley ended the year with an 11.98 K/9 (31.3 K%) and 3.88 BB/9 (10.1 BB%), so plenty of whiffs but more walks than you’d like to see. Not a back-breaking amount though. He is homer prone — 1.35 HR/9 and 13.1% HR/FB this year, right in line with his career 1.34 HR/9 and 10.5% HR/FB — and that’s what keeps him from being a true eighth or ninth inning option going forward in my opinion. Kelley was a big part of Girardi’s bullpen for a big chunk of the summer and the Yankees got him on the cheap. Could ask for more from a guy who was cut from another team’s roster right as Spring Training opened.

What Went Right: Brett Gardner

The 2013 season is over and we’ve had a week to catch our breath. It’s time to review all aspects of the year that was, continuing today with the Yankees leadoff hitter.

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

The Yankees were pretty inactive last offseason, at least in the sense that they didn’t import any actually good players from other teams, so the biggest upgrade they made was getting one of their own back from injury. Brett Gardner missed just about the entire 2012 season with an elbow injury that, three setbacks later, eventually required surgery. All told, he appeared in just 16 of the team’s 162 games last year.

Gardner was essentially replacing Raul Ibanez in the lineup and in the outfield. Ibanez did an admirable job for the Yankees last year, though his contributions are greatly overstated because he became a clutch homer machine in the final two or three weeks of the year. For the first five and a half months, he was pretty bad at the plate and downright terrible in the field. The two-way upgrade was obvious.

Oddly enough, Gardner’s season started with a position change. The Yankees dubbed it an experiment at first, but their plan was to move Gardner to center and Curtis Granderson over to left to best use their defensive skills. Brett has way more range and is the all-around superior defender, so he should play the tougher position. The team didn’t commit to anything and only said they were trying it out in camp, but J.A. Happ made it official when he broke Granderson’s forearm with a pitch in his first Grapefruit League at-bat. Took the decision right out of the team’s hands.

Just like that, Gardner was the full-time center fielder. The full-time center fielder and full-time leadoff man thanks to Derek Jeter‘s ankle injury and Ichiro Suzuki‘s noodle bat. The Yankees had tried Gardner in the leadoff spot in the past and the results were pretty bad, bad enough that he never stuck atop the lineup. This year was different. This year he had no choice but to be the leadoff man because the team had no other alternatives. Maybe that lack of competition helped Brett feel more comfortable, who knows?

Anyway, with the understanding that every everyday player will have ups and downs throughout the 162-game season, Gardner remained remarkably consistent at the plate over the course of the year. I give you two graphs:

Gardner 2013 BB & wOBA

The left graphs shows Gardner’s day-by-day OBP (the most important thing for a leadoff man) while the right shows his day-by-day wOBA (overall offensive production). There’s not a whole lot of deviation there, especially with the OBP. Pretty much the same guy from start to finish. There was a never point where taking him out of the leadoff was considered because he wasn’t hitting.

Gardner did have two notable hot streaks over the course of the summer. He hit three homeruns in a 13-game span from May 24th through June 5th, which is notable because he isn’t a power hitter. Not even close. The last of the three homer was his sixth of the year, one short of his career-high after only 59 games. As Jeff Sullivan noted, Gardner was doing it by being more aggressive at the plate — three of those six homers came on the first pitch while another came on the second pitch. He was ambushing fastballs early in the count instead of taking them for the sake of working the count. The power surge didn’t last — he hit only two homers in the team’s final 103 games of the season — but it happened.

The second hot streak, weirdly, started when the power surge ended. Starting on June 5th, Gardner went on a 24-game tear in which he went 35-for-100 (.350) with six walks (.387 OBP) and eleven doubles (.540 SLG). He had multiple hits in half of those 24 games. Near the very end of that insane hot streak, Gardner’s batting line topped out at .290/.348/.456 and had him in the conversation as a bubble player for the All-Star Game. He didn’t get elected obviously, but it was still cool just to hear him be considered. Hooray arbitrary endpoints.

Unfortunately, Gardner’s season ended prematurely when he strained an oblique muscle on a swing in his first at-bat of the September 12th game against the Orioles in Camden Yards. The injury ended his year — there was talk he could be available as a pinch-hitter late in the season, but that never happened — and left the team with a gigantic hole atop the lineup. Granderson had returned to take over center field by then, that wasn’t an issue, but the Yankees didn’t have anyone to properly set the table from the leadoff spot. The offense really sputtered down the stretch.

(Andy Marlin/Getty)
(Andy Marlin/Getty)

Overall, Gardner hit .273/.344/.416 (108 wRC+) while setting new career-highs in doubles (33), triples (ten), homers (eight) and plate appearances (609). He held his own against lefties (.247/.317/.427, 100 wRC+) and was a monster with men on base (.311/.379/.467, 130 wRC+). Pretty much the only complaint about Gardner’s offensive game was his relative lack of steals. After swiping 47 and 49 bases in his previous two full seasons, he only went 24-for-32 (75%) in stolen base chances in 2013.

Defensively … I’m not really sure what you can say. Gardner was very good overall but not truly elite like he was in left field, at least in my opinion. The defensive stats — +6 DRS, -0.5 UZR, -7.3 FRAA, -20 TotalZone (?!?) — aren’t too kind but a one-year sample doesn’t tell us much of anything. You’d expect the numbers to come down because Gardner was being compared to other center fielders and not other left fielders like he was the last few years, but geez, they shouldn’t come down that much. The FRAA and TotalZone numbers definitely do not pass my sniff test. You’re welcome to feel differently.

From start to finish, Gardner was the team’s second best position player behind Robinson Cano this season. By far too. It was Cano (big gap) Gardner (big gap) everyone else. That’s as much a statement about Gardner’s strong season as it is the rest of the roster. He didn’t show any lingering effects from the elbow injury and, even with the (lack of) stolen base weirdness, he was an above-average player on both sides of the ball. Again, that’s based on my opinion of his defense. The Yankees didn’t have many bright spots this year, but Gardner was very obviously one of them.