Jordan Montgomery and maximizing deception

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

A few years ago the Yankees had a clear preference for physically huge power pitchers. Peak CC Sabathia was basically the perfect Yankees pitcher. He’s enormous and he had a big fastball and a wipeout breaking ball, allowing him to rack up strikeouts and limit walks. Dellin Betances is another big power pitcher. Same with Michael Pineda, who the Yankees more or less hoped would develop into a right-handed version of peak Sabathia.

The Yankees have started to open their minds a bit and pursue different types of pitchers. Masahiro Tanaka is a master craftsman. Sonny Gray is a 5-foot-10 righty who will throw the kitchen sink at you. Jordan Montgomery is a big dude (6-foot-6) like Sabathia and Betances and Pineda, but he’s more of a command and control guy than a power pitcher. He uses his deep arsenal to change speeds, change eye levels, and keep hitters off balance.

Montgomery was the best rookie pitcher in baseball this season, at least according to fWAR, and much of his success was tied to deception. It started with that deep arsenal. Here is his pitch selection throughout the season:

jordan-montgomery-pitch-selection

Montgomery abandoned his slider a bit in June and July, otherwise he never threw any pitch less than 12% of the time in a single month. Five pitches used regularly. Not many veteran pitchers do that. Montgomery did it as a rookie, and he did it very effectively.

Using five different pitches regularly is not necessary to be considered a command and control pitcher, nor is having five pitches necessary to have deception, at least in the traditional baseball sense of the term. When we talk about deception, we’re referring to hiding the baseball and making it more difficult to pick up. Some pitchers turn their backs during their delivery. Others have a herky jerky delivery. Something like that usually qualifies as deception.

In Montgomery’s case, he creates deception with his sky high release point and the whole “tunneling” phenomenon, the idea that each pitch looks the same as it travels toward the plate, before breaking in different directions at the last moment. This old GIF by Drew Sheppard from back when Matt Harvey was still good is a personal favorite. It’s a fastball and a slider, and you can see how the pitches look the same until right before reaching the plate.

matt-harvey-tunneling

Pretty neat, huh? One of Montgomery’s strengths is tunneling his wide array of pitches similar to the Harvey GIF, at least according to the relatively new tunneling numbers at Baseball Prospectus. These stats measure the distance between sets of back-to-back pitches at various points along the pitch’s flight, and they do it thousands of times across the season, for every pitch the pitcher throws. Here is the 2017 release point differential leaderboard:

  1. Jon Lester: 1.61 inches
  2. Stephen Strasburg: 1.76 inches
  3. Kyle Hendricks: 1.77 inches
  4. Alex Cobb: 1.79 inches
  5. J.A. Happ: 1.80 inches
  6. Robert Gsellman: 1.88 inches
  7. Jordan Montgomery: 1.88 inches
    (MLB average: 2.4 inches)

Long story short, these numbers are telling us these pitchers release their pitches from nearly the same spot each time. They have tight and consistent release points. Everything comes out of their hand from the same place, so, for example, you can’t tell the pitcher is throwing a slider because he drops down a bit. Here is a plot of Montgomery’s release points, just to drive home the point:

jordan-montgomery-release-points

Montgomery’s 1.88 inch release differential is easily the lowest among New York’s starters. Pineda was second at 2.11 inches. Tanaka was next at 2.26 inches. Severino had the rotation’s largest release differential at 3.13 inches this season. Here’s what his release points looked like, for reference:

luis-severino-release-points

That’s a much larger blob than Montgomery’s. Having a tight, consistent release point is a good thing, but having a more spread out release point isn’t automatically bad. I mean, Severino’s release differential was one of the largest in baseball this year, and he was a top ten starter. Clayton Kershaw’s release differential (3.22 inches) is even larger than Severino’s and he’s pretty good at this whole pitching thing.

The release point is only one piece of the tunneling equation though. Remember the Harvey GIF? The batter’s brain is reading fastball and telling his arms to start swinging before the slider really starts to slide. The more your pitches look the same as they approach the plate, the less time the hitter has to react. To measure this, Baseball Prospectus has a release/tunnel differential ratio stat. Here’s their explanation:

Release:Tunnel Ratio – This stat shows us the ratio of a pitcher’s release differential to their tunnel differential. Pitchers with smaller Release:Tunnel Ratios have smaller differentiation between pitches through the tunnel point, making it more difficult for opposing hitters to distinguish them in theory.

The tunnel point is set at 23.8 feet from home plate, which, according to Baseball Prospectus, is “the decision-making point based on 175 milliseconds and a league-average fastball.” Okie dokie. How tight is the pitcher’s release point? How close together are his pitches at the tunnel point? Compare those two and you get the release/tunnel ratio. The smaller the number, the better. Here’s the release/tunnel ratio leaderboard:

  1. Alex Cobb: 0.161
  2. Jon Lester: 0.170
  3. Jordan Montgomery: 0.175
  4. Kyle Hendricks: 0.182
  5. Derek Holland: 0.182

Montgomery releases everything close together and the pitches stay close together on their path to the plate. And when you’re throwing five different pitches regularly, the hitter has basically no idea what’s coming, at least when Montgomery executes properly. Mistake pitches happen. But, better than nearly every other starter out there, Montgomery tunnels his pitches consistently.

I know there’s a lot of scary jargon in here like release differential and tunnel points and all that. In plain English, this all means Montgomery creates deception with his ability to keep his pitches close together for as long as possible as they travel toward the plate. He’s throwing one of five pitches at you, and you don’t know whether you’re getting the four-seamer or sinker or curveball or slider or changeup until the pitch is more than halfway to the plate. Imagine how hard it is to hit like that?

There is definitely something to be said for having an overpowering fastball and a wicked breaking ball like Severino, tunnel points be damned. Montgomery doesn’t have the natural gifts to be that type of pitcher though. He’s 6-foot-6 and he releases the ball from way up here … *holds hand far above head* … and he uses his ability to make his five pitches look the same to deceive hitters. Big overpowering lefties like peak Sabathia are pretty great. Deception guys like Montgomery can be pretty good too.

The Yankees and swinging away in 3-0 counts

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

Once upon a time I was a hardcore “make the pitcher work” guy. And I still am, but to a lesser degree. There are obvious benefits to running up the opposing starter’s pitch count and getting to the bullpen as early as possible, even these days when everyone coming out of the bullpen seems to throw 97 with a wicked slider. The more pitches you see in an at-bat, the more likely the pitcher is to make a mistake.

Over the years though, I’ve started to gradually shift away from the “work the count all the time” mentality, and now I’m a pretty big fan of swinging early in the count and ambushing first or second pitch fastballs. Especially against great pitchers who don’t give you many pitches to hit in general. Selective aggressive is a good way to describe it. Work the count, sure, but if you get something to hit early, give it your “A” swing.

Part of selective aggressive is the 3-0 green light, which usually comes from the bench. The manager or hitting coach will decide who should swing away in a 3-0 count. When to swing away is pretty important too. Down a run or two late? Forget it. Take the 3-0 pitch because you need baserunners. Up a few runs? That’s a good time to swing away and try to tack on runs.

The Yankees as a team hit .545 with two home runs in 3-0 counts this year. The same guy hit both homers: Starlin Castro. He hit one against Dylan Covey in April, which I do not remember at all, and he hit the other against Chris Tillman in June. That one I do remember. It was during that ridiculous series against the Orioles in Yankee Stadium, when the Yankees swept the O’s and outscored them 38-8 in the three games.

Look at that cookie. That’s a 91 mph get-me-over fastball right down the heart of the plate. Tillman might as well have put it on a tee. That’s exactly the kind of pitch you’re hunting when you get the green light on 3-0. You hope the pitcher assumes you’re taking all the way and he gives you a meatball.

Now, the Yankees hit .545 in 3-0 counts this season and that sounds wonderful, but this is an extremely small sample size. The Yankees put eleven balls in play in 3-0 counts in 2017. That’s all. They had 135 plate appearances end on a 3-0 pitch in 2017: 6-for-11 (.545) with two homers, four singles, one hit-by-pitch, and 123 walks. That doesn’t mean they only swung eleven times in a 3-0 count, however. Sometimes you swing-and-miss in a 3-0 count, or foul it off. It happens.

Having watched an embarrassing amount of Yankees baseball over the years, it seemed to me the Yankees turned it loose in 3-0 counts a little more often this season than in previous years. So I decided to look it up. Why not? Here are the team’s 3-0 swing rates over the last few years.

NYY 3-0 swing rate MLB rank MLB average Hitting Coaches
2017 9.3% 10th 9.4% Alan Cockrell & Marcus Thames
2016 5.6% 26th 8.7% Cockrell & Thames
2015 6.2% 21st 7.9% Jeff Pentland & Cockrell
2014 6.9% 21st 8.3% Kevin Long

See? I wasn’t crazy. The Yankees did swing more often in 3-0 counts this season. And that’s all swings, just to be clear. Balls in play, swings and misses, foul balls … if they offered at a 3-0 pitch, it’s included in the data regardless of outcome. The Yankees definitely did swing more often in 3-0 counts this season. But was it worth it?

  • 2017: 134 OPS+ in 3-0 counts (8th in MLB)
  • 2016: 0 OPS+ (30th)
  • 2015: 108 OPS+ (14th)
  • 2014: 112 OPS+ (11th)

So … kinda? Yeah, I guess it was worth it, but again, we’re talking super small sample sizes here. The way I see it, swinging more often in 3-0 counts might not make much difference across a full 162-game season, but in an individual game, it could make a huge difference. Good or bad. You could hit that homer to break the game open or pop it up and kill a potentially big inning.

The 3-0 green light is one tool in the shed. It’s something teams can employ strategically depending on the game situation and the personnel. It wouldn’t make sense to let Ronald Torreyes or Austin Romine swing away 3-0. Someone like Castro or Gary Sanchez or Aaron Judge could do major damage with a 3-0 green light, however. And because the Yankees have so many count workers — the Yankees saw the fifth most 3-0 counts in baseball in 2017 — they’re going to see a lot of 3-0 counts. Giving everyone the take sign would be silly.

Working the count and prolonging at-bats will forever be a good strategy, as will taking walks. Those are never bad. Walks alone won’t win you games though. There is such a thing as being too passive at the plate — Brett Gardner is definitely guilty of this at times — and there’s value in being unpredictable. Swinging at a few more 3-0 pitches can equal more walks as pitchers become more careful. The 3-0 green light may not turn an average offense into a powerhouse, but it something that can help, and the Yankees used it more often in 2017 than in previous years.

Aaron Judge’s normal person-sized strike zone

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Earlier today we kicked off our 2017 Season Review series with the amazingly awesome Aaron Judge. Judge will win AL Rookie of the Year in a landslide and he should finish high up in the AL MVP voting. He might even win! I doubt it though. Jose Altuve seems to have a leg up, but Judge deserves to be in the conversation. His season was that good.

One thing I didn’t touch on in the Judge review post was his strike zone, because that’s worth its own post. As we saw all season, and especially in the postseason, Judge was on the wrong end of a lot of called strikes on pitches down in the zone, below his knees. He had a lot of low pitches called strikes. A lot. He’s a 6-foot-7 behemoth, yet umpires called pitches at knees like he’s a run of the mill 6-foot-1 or 6-foot-2 player.

Here’s how the MLB rulebook defines the strike zone:

The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

That is the rulebook strike zone. The real life strike zone starts a little above the belt and ends at the knee. That’s how umpires have been calling it for years and years and years. Pitches up at the letters are rarely called strikes even though the rulebook says they should be called strikes.

Pitches at the knees are often called strikes as well. The bottom of the strike zone has been getting lower and lower for a while now. And I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a hitter take more called strikes on pitches below the knees than Judge this season. A cherry-picked example:

aaron-judge-tyler-glasnow

Game after game, all season. That pitch is down below the knees and yet, it’s a called strike for Judge. It seems to me umpires haven’t recalibrated their strike zone for Judge. The bottom of the strike zone was the same for him, at 6-foot-7, as it was for the average player, even though it shouldn’t be. He’s taller than the average hitter and therefore the bottom of his strike zone should be higher than the average hitter, right? Right.

Baseball Savant allows us to look at pitches in certain zones within the strike zone. Here is their detailed strike zone map:

statcast-strike-zone

I’m interested in zones 17, 18, and 19. Those zones at the bottom of the strike zone, pretty much right at the knees. Here are Judge’s regular season numbers:

  • Total pitches in zones 17-19: 514
  • Pitches taken in zones 17-19: 320 (62.3% of total pitches)
  • Called strikes in zones 17-19: 161 (50.3% of pitches taken)

When Judge took a pitch at the knees this season, in zones 17-19, it was 50/50 whether it would be called a strike. Now here are the MLB averages, not including Judge:

  • Total pitches in zones 17-19: 93,320
  • Pitches taken in zones 17-19: 50,486 (54.1% of total pitches)
  • Called strikes in zones 17-19: 17,114 (33.9% of pitches taken)

Hmmm. HMMM. First of all, Judge took more pitches in zones 17-19 than the average hitter, probably because those pitches are way down to him and he believes they’ll be called balls. And when he took a pitch at the knees, in zones 17-19 per that Statcast defined strike zone, it was 16.4 percentage points more likely to be called a strike than the rest of the league. Not cool, umpires. Not cool.

Had pitches in zones 17-19 been called strikes at the league average 33.9% rate for Judge, he’d have gotten 53 extra balls this year. I know getting 53 balls instead of 53 called strikes doesn’t sound like much, and it’s not in the grand scheme of things, but in one individual game it could be huge. It could be a walk instead of a strikeout. It could be a 3-1 count instead of a 2-2 count. In an individual game, the impact of one of those 53 extra balls could be enormous.

Now, to be fair, this works both ways. Judge was victimized by more called strikes at the knees this year, but he also benefited from fewer strikes at the top of the zone as well. Go look at the strike zone graphic above again. Now we’re going to look at zones 11, 12, and 13 at the top of the zone. The numbers:

  • Called strikes vs. Judge in zones 11-13: 3.9% of pitches taken
  • Called strikes vs. MLB in zones 11-13: 28.3% of pitches taken

Pitches at the knees are called a strike 16.4 percentage points more often against Judge than the league average hitter. Pitches at the letters are called a strike 24.4 percent points less often against Judge than the league average hitter. Umpires need to move their entire strike zone up a few inches against Judge. He’s getting more called strikes down and not enough called strikes up.

On one hand, trading a few extra strikes at the bottom of the zone for many more balls at the top of the zone sounds like a good trade-off. On the other hand, many more pitches are thrown down in the zone than up. The league average numbers during the regular season:

  • Total pitches in zones 11-13 (up): 62,564
  • Total pitches in zones 17-19 (down): 93,834

There are three pitches in zones 17-19 for every two pitches in zones 11-13. Given that, it would be more beneficial for Judge to trade called strikes at the letters for balls at the knees than to stick with the status quo, in which he trades called strikes at the knees for balls at the letters. Pitchers attack Judge down in the zone. They did it all season. The fewer gift strikes they get down there, the better.

The solution is not for Judge to swing at more pitches down. That’s asking for trouble. The league averages on pitches in zones 17-19 were a .204 AVG and a .092 ISO. You can’t really do anything with pitches down there. The solution is umpires making the adjustment for the 6-foot-7 hitter and calling a proper strike zone when Judge is at the plate. And maybe that means the perpetually quiet and respectful Judge has to bark at umpires a little more.

“He’s extremely respectful, but I don’t necessarily think arguing for yourself is being disrespectful if you do it in the right way,” said Joe Girardi during the ALDS. “He’s been a little more emotional. Yeah, I mean, if he thinks it’ll help (then argue). Yeah, of course. And I think sometimes young kids are afraid to say something. But I definitely wouldn’t have a problem with it.”

I have no idea whether there’s any precedent for this, but it would be cool if the Yankees reached out to MLB this offseason and said hey, Judge is getting hosed by the umpires. He’s one of the best and most popular (by jersey sales) players in the league, and he’s having at-bats taken away from him because umpires aren’t calling a proper strike zone. Send them some video. The Yankees wouldn’t be asking for an advantage. All they’d be asking for is fairness. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

The Yankees and 2017’s major awards

(Adam Hunger/Getty)
(Adam Hunger/Getty)

For the first time in a very long time, the Yankees have legitimate candidates for each of baseball’s major awards this season. Even in 2009, the Yankees did not have a Rookie of the Year candidate. They had MVP (Mark Teixeira) and Cy Young (CC Sabathia) candidates, but not a Rookie of the Year candidate. Their best rookie that year, by WAR, was Brett Gardner, and he had only 284 plate appearances as the fourth outfielder.

In recent years the voting body seems to be doing a better job handing out the awards, which really just means the voting results closely match my hypothetical ballot. There is no right or wrong with this stuff. The voting criteria is intentionally vague, so it’s up to the individual voter to decide. It is what it is. So anyway, with the regular season winding down, let’s take a look at where the various Yankees place in this year’s award races.

Most Valuable Player

The first six or seven weeks after the All-Star break were not pretty, but a ferocious September has Aaron Judge right back in the thick of the MVP race. I see six serious AL MVP candidates right now: Judge, Jose Altuve, Corey Kluber, Jose Ramirez, Chris Sale, and Mike Trout. Trout missed too much time with his thumb injury to win. The voters are going to hold that against him. Kluber and Sale have to deal with the anti-pitcher bias the exists in MVP voting, and as good as Ramirez has been, Altuve and Judge have superior numbers. Considerably superior numbers, really.

MVP is not only a performance award. It’s a performance plus narrative award. Both the Astros and Yankees are going to the postseason, so that’s not going to sway the vote in Judge’s or Altuve’s favor. On one hand, you could argue the Yankees would’ve won the AL East if not for Judge’s slump. On the other, you could argue the Astros have such a huge lead in the AL West that they would’ve won even without Altuve. Hmmm.

Statistically, Judge has a slight edge overall, but obviously Altuve has been excellent as well. Let’s compare quickly:

  • AVG: Altuve (.347 to .284)
  • OBP: Judge (.421 to .413)
  • SLG: Judge (.622 to .552)
  • wRC+: Judge (171 to 161)
  • XBH: Judge (77 to 66)
  • HR: Judge (50 to 24)
  • SB: Altuve (32 to 9)
  • DRS: Judge (+10 to +3)
  • fWAR: Judge (+7.8 to +7.4)
  • bWAR: Altuve (+8.3 to +7.8)

Fun fact: that +7.8 fWAR leads all of baseball. Judge jumped over Sale (+7.7) this week. Altuve has hit for a much higher average — he’s only the fifth player in the last 70 years with 200+ hits in four straight seasons, joining Hall of Famers Kirby Puckett and Wade Boggs, future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki, and, uh, Michael Young — and yet Judge still has him beat in on-base percentage. Judge strikes out a ton more (30.7% to 12.8%) but also walks a ton more too (18.6% to 9.0%). Altuve is a greater threat on the bases while Judge saves more runs in the field. Pretty amazing.

My favorite thing about this AL MVP debate is how it shows two very different players can be among the game’s best. Judge and Altuve couldn’t be any more different, both in terms of their physical size and the shape of their production. Judge is a monster power hitter while Altuve is a pint-sized contact machine. Will Altuve’s size give him an edge in the MVP race? Don’t doubt the voting body’s ability to come up with a “he overcame greater odds” narrative. There’s also the “Judge isn’t clutch!” storyline that has become a thing.

Judge with runners in scoring position: .255/.381/.621 (146 wRC+)
Altuve with runners in scoring position: .310/.400/.450 (129 wRC+)

Judge in high-leverage situations: .235/.345/.498 (95 wRC+)
Altuve in high-leverage situations: .318/.400/.477 (138 wRC+)

Ultimately, I do think Altuve is going to win MVP because he had a more consistent season from start to finish, which essentially means Judge’s second half slump will cost him, even with the big September. I suppose if the Yankees rally to steal the AL East these next few days, that could shift things in Judge’s favor, but nah. I think Altuve wins with Ramirez and Judge finishing second and third in either order.

Also, another fun fact: the Yankees have more than one player worthy of MVP votes. Gary Sanchez is hitting .280/.346/.537 (131 wRC+) with 33 homers despite missing a month, and he’s thrown out 38.3% batters of faced. There are ten spots on the MVP ballot and I expect Sanchez to get a handful of down ballot votes. Putting him in the top five would be tough, but the 5-10 range? Hell yeah he’ll get votes. Maybe Didi Gregorius too. And Luis Severino. There’s always some down ballot weirdness. Judge is a legitimate MVP candidate. Gary is going to get some votes too.

Cy Young

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

Pretty amazing that we’re talking about Severino as a Cy Young candidate, isn’t it? And not as a down ballot candidate who might get a few votes. A bonafide Cy Young candidate. Kluber and Sale are off in their own little stratosphere and they’re going to finish first and second in the Cy Young voting in either order. (Kluber’s probably going to win.) Severino is the best of the rest. Check out his ranks among the 57 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title:

  • IP: 193.1 (16th)
  • ERA: 2.98 (8th)
  • FIP: 3.07 (7th)
  • K%: 29.4% (6th)
  • BB%: 6.5% (16th)
  • K/BB: 4.51 (8th)
  • GB%: 50.6% (5th)
  • fWAR: +5.8 (4th)
  • bWAR: +5.5 (9th)

What a season for Sevy. He’s been so good overall. So, so good. The Cy Young ballot runs five players deep, not ten like the MVP, and I imagine Kluber and Sale will be first and second on every single ballot. That leaves the 3-5 spots for Severino, Justin Verlander, Carlos Carrasco, Marcus Stroman, and Craig Kimbrel. Plus whoever else lands a stray vote (Jason Vargas has 17 wins!). My guess is Verlander sneaks ahead of Severino and finished third in the voting behind Kluber and Sale, and Severino finishes fourth.

Rookie of the Year

There is no mystery here. Judge is going to win Rookie of the Year and he should win unanimously. The whole “first ever rookie to hit 50 freaking home runs” thing clinched it, if there was any lingering doubt. There was that weird “Andrew Benintendi might steal Rookie of the Year!” narrative a few weeks back but lol to that. The AL rookie fWAR leaderboard:

  1. Aaron Judge: +7.8
  2. Jordan Montgomery: +2.6
  3. Matt Chapman: +2.3
  4. Mitch Haniger: +2.3
  5. Andrew Benintendi: +2.1

Yeah. Judge is going to win in a landslide. I fully expect Judge to get basically all the first place votes, Benintendi to get basically all the second place votes, then the third place votes — there are only three spots on the Rookie of the Year ballot — get split between Montgomery, Chapman, Haniger, Matt Olson, Bradley Zimmer, Scott Alexander, and a few others.

Chad Green, by the way, is not rookie eligible, otherwise it would’ve been interesting to see whether he grabbed some third place votes. Green threw only 45.2 innings last season — the rookie limit is 50 innings — but he does not qualify as a rookie this year due to service time. Womp womp.

Manager of the Year

Moreso than any other award, the Manager of the Year is a narrative award. How the heck do you evaluate a manager? They all make seemingly silly bullpen and lineup decisions. We don’t get to see their work behind the scenes in the clubhouse either. For all intents and purposes, the Manager of the Year is the “manager of the team that most exceeded expectations” award. That’s been the prevailing theme the last few seasons.

The Yankees, pretty clearly, have exceeded expectations this season. By a lot. Many pundits, myself included, as well as the various projection systems pegged the Yankees for something like 80-82 wins. Some a little higher, some a little lower. Basically no one had them winning 90-ish games with the second best run differential (+197) in baseball. By the “team that exceeded expectations” standard, Joe Girardi should get a ton of Manager of the Year votes.

Now, here’s the problem: the Twins exist. They lost 103 games last season! Now they’re going to the postseason as the second wildcard team. That’s an amazing turnaround. I fully expect Paul Molitor to win Manager of the Year because of that. I mean, how could you vote against him when the team accomplishes that? Girardi has received Manager of the Year votes every season since 2009 and I have no reason to believe that streak will end this year. I just think it’s unlikely he’ll beat out Molitor. Maybe Girardi will finish second in the voting?

Comeback Player of the Year

The Yankees do not have a Comeback Player of the Year candidate. Their best comeback player is, uh, Adam Warren? It’s probably him. Severino is just a young kid breaking out. He’s not a comeback player. I imagine Mike Moustakas is the Comeback Player of the Year favorite. He went from playing only 27 games last season due to a torn ACL to setting the franchise single-season home run record this year.

Gold Gloves

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Sanchez won’t win the Gold Glove at catcher because of the passed balls, even with his above-average framing and throwing numbers. That means the Yankees only have three Gold Glove candidates: Judge, Gregorius, and Gardner. First base and third base turned over at midseason, and center field was a bit of a revolving door. Second base? No. Sorry, Starlin Castro. But no. Some numbers for the hell of it:

  • Gardner: +13 DRS (1st among all left fielders)
  • Gregorius: +0 DRS (39th among all shortstops, and lol)
  • Judge: +10 DRS (4th among all right fielders)

Gregorius won’t win the Gold Glove because Andrelton Simmons and Francisco Lindor exist. Judge won’t win the Gold Glove because Mookie Betts exists. Gardner might win the Gold Glove in left field though. He won it last year, and Alex Gordon, his longtime competition for the award, has faded big time the last two years. It’ll come down to Gardner, Benintendi, Eddie Rosario, and Justin Upton. Gardner’s got a good shot for his second straight Gold Glove, I think.

* * *

Keep in mind these are regular season awards. The ballots are due following the end of the regular season but before the start of the postseason. Judge is definitely going to become the first Yankee to win Rookie of the Year since Derek Jeter in 1996. That much is obvious. He has a chance — I wouldn’t call it a great one, but a chance — to win MVP as well, which would be the first for the Yankees since Alex Rodriguez in 2007. Sabathia finished in the top four of the Cy Young voting three straight years from 2009-11, and Severino could finish that high in the voting this year.

Just the fact we’re talking about Judge as an MVP candidate — in addition to being the runaway Rookie of the Year favorite — and Severino as a Cy Young candidate is pretty awesome. Coming into the season, I think we were all hoping they’d shake off last season’s disappointing big league stints and begin to establish themselves as building blocks going forward. They did that and more. Best case scenario seasons for both of them. Really. Winning any kind of award, or just finishing high up in the voting, would be the cherry on top of an already amazing season.

Looking ahead to the 2018 luxury tax payroll situation

(Jim McIsaac/Getty)
(Jim McIsaac/Getty)

Right now, everyone in Yankeeland is focused on locking down a postseason spot, and understandably so. They’re going to clinch a wildcard spot very soon and the AL East title isn’t completely out of reach. The Yankees have been to the postseason once in the last four seasons, and that was a wholly unsatisfying Wild Card Game shutout loss in 2015. No one wants to see that again.

In the front office though, Brian Cashman and his staff are surely already in 2018 planning mode. Yes, they’re focused on the postseason race too, but they never stop looking for ways to improve, and in mid-to-late September, that means looking ahead to the offseason. It’s a weird dynamic. There’s only so much the front office can do to help the 2017 Yankees at this point. The roster is built. Now it’s up to the players to perform.

Once we get into offseason mode and start thinking about how the Yankees will adjust and improve their roster for next season and beyond, the $197M luxury tax threshold is going to hang over every discussion, every move. Hal Steinbrenner has made it clear he wants to get under the threshold and 2018 is, by far, the best chance the Yankees have had to do it in quite some time. They hoped to do it in 2014, but missing the postseason in 2013 changed things.

So, with that in mind, I figured we might as well break down the current 2018 luxury tax payroll situation, just to see where the Yankees stand heading into the offseason. The short version: they should have a nice chunk of change to spend this winter. The long version: well, let’s get to that now. Here’s a 2018 payroll breakdown.

Guaranteed Contracts

Might as well start with the elephant in the room. Tanaka might opt-out of his contract. He also might not! My guess right now is he will opt-out. I’d say it’s 90/10 right now in favor of opting out or leveraging the opt-out into an extension, CC Sabathia style. For now, Tanaka is under contract next season, so you have to include him in any payroll projection. If he opts out, you adjust. Those seven contract above total $108.42M toward next year’s luxury tax payroll.

The Yankees are shedding Sabathia’s contract ($25M annually for luxury tax purposes) as well as Matt Holliday‘s pricey one-year commitment ($13M) after the season. The good news: that’s $38M freed up! The bad news: they have to replace Sabathia and Holliday somehow. Michael Pineda ($7.4M), Todd Frazier ($12M pro-rated), Jaime Garcia ($12M pro-rated), and Chris Carter ($3M) are among the smaller commitments coming off the books as well. All told, roughly $52M worth of veterans will be leaving the luxury tax payroll this offseason, not counting Tanaka.

Arbitration-Eligible Players

Erik Kratz will be arbitration-eligible for the third time this offseason as well, though he’s as good as gone. He’ll be among the first players (if not the first player) designated for assignment when time comes to clean up the 40-man roster. I suspect Shreve will be a 40-man casualty as well. He’s out of minor league options, and when a middling up-and-down reliever runs out of options, they tend to get cast aside for the next optionable up-and-down arm. Such is life.

Anyway, the Yankees have a pretty sizeable arbitration class. Gregorius could end up earning north of $8M next season while Gray should clear $6M. What’ll happen with Betances? He went to his fourth straight All-Star Game this year and, even with the walks this season, his track record puts him among the best relievers in the game. Also, he went 10-for-11 in saves while filling in for Chapman, and saves pay in arbitration. Even if Dellin were to go to arbitration and lose again, I think he’s looking at $5M or so next season.

Warren, Romine, and Kahnle won’t get huge raises given their roles and track records — Warren might get $3.5M or so, but the other guys won’t get much more than $1M — though I have no idea what’ll happen with Hicks. He was outstanding in the first half this year, then hurt and kinda crummy in the second half. Tough to value him. I’d say $3M seems like a possibility. Based on my guesstimates, the Yankees are looking at $25M to $30M in arbitration salaries next year, not counting Shreve. Add that to the guaranteed contracts and we’re at $138.42M total. Let’s call it $140M flat.

Miscellany

  • Dead money ($5.5M): Portion of Brian McCann‘s salary
  • Eleven pre-arbitration-eligible players ($5.995M): $545,000 league minimum each
  • Remaining 40-man spots: $2M estimated
  • Player benefits: $12M estimated

The other big contract the Yankees are shedding after the season: Alex Rodriguez. The Yankees paid him $21M to hang out with Jennifer Lopez this year and he counted against the luxury tax at $27.5M. Woof. That $27.5M worth of dead money on the luxury tax payroll is gone. The Yankees are still paying part of McCann’s salary, but that’s it. No other payments to players no longer on the roster.

Unloading the Sabathia and A-Rod contracts is the biggest reason next year will be the best chance the Yankees have had to get under the luxury tax in quite some time. The second biggest reason? The pre-arbitration-eligible players. Homegrown All-Stars Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Luis Severino will all make something close to the league minimum next year. It won’t be exactly the league minimum — the Yankees have a sliding salary scale based on service time with escalators for awards, etc. — but it’ll be relative peanuts. Among those three, Judge figures to get the largest 2018 salary for several reasons …

  1. He was the AL’s leading vote-getter for the All-Star Game.
  2. He’s probably going to lead the AL in home runs.
  3. He’s going to win Rookie of the Year, possibly unanimously.
  4. He’s going to finish in the top ten of the MVP voting. Maybe top five.

… but even then his salary will be in the six-figures. The largest pre-arbitration salary ever went to Kris Bryant this year. The Cubs gave him $1.05M. All he had to do was win Rookie of the Year one year, then MVP and the World Series the next. Mike Trout is the only other member of the $1M pre-arbitration club, so yeah. Point is, the Yankees have a great chance to get under the luxury tax threshold next year because their three best players will make something close to the league minimum. What a huge, huge advantage.

Beyond those three, there’s also Jordan Montgomery providing cheap rotation innings and Chad Green dominating out of the bullpen at little cost. And Ronald Torreyes serving as the cheap utility infielder. Now, here’s the thing: I said eleven pre-arbitration players, but that’s not correct. Seven guaranteed contracts plus seven arbitration-eligible players (not counting Shreve) gets us to 14 roster spots, so the Yankees need eleven guys to fill out the roster.

They’re not going to fill all eleven spots with pre-arbitration-eligible players, however. They’re probably going to sign a pitcher to replace Sabathia (or re-sign Sabathia himself) and probably add a veteran bat to replace Holliday and/or Frazier (or re-sign Frazier himself), plus who knows what else. Judge, Sanchez, Severino, Montgomery, and Green are pre-arbitration locks. Torreyes figures to still be around and there will probably be a few cheap bullpeners too (Ben Heller? Jonathan Holder?). Inevitably the Yankees will sign some veterans though.

Alright, so when we add all that together, the guaranteed contracts plus arbitration and pre-arbitration players plus the dead money plus the miscellaneous expenses (benefits, other 40-man guys) we get roughly $165M. The luxury tax threshold is $197M next year, so the Yankees are left with $32M or so to play with. It’ll be about $55M if Tanaka opts out, which I think will happen. That would be $55M to replace Tanaka, Sabathia, Holliday, and Frazier, plus other miscellaneous upgrades.

* * *

Because the Yankees appear to have $32M to spend this offseason — I say appear because this is all one giant estimate — even if Tanaka doesn’t opt-out, I wonder whether they’ll look to lock up some of their young players to long-term extensions. If a player does sign an extension, next year’s luxury tax hit becomes the average annual salary of the contract. So giving Sanchez, say, six years and $45M would give him a $7.5M luxury tax hit rather than his league minimum salary. That’s a pretty big deal.

At the same time, signing young players to multi-year extensions that buy out future arbitration and free agent years is generally great for business. There are always exceptions — some guys get hurt or just stop hitting and the contract becomes a dud, that’s baseball — but more often than not, teams are glad they signed their players. The sooner the better too. Salaries only go up the longer you wait. The Yankees have five obvious extension candidates and I’d rate them in this order, in terms of priority:

  1. Sanchez: You don’t let young catchers who hit like this get away. I don’t care how many passed balls he allows. Sign him and enjoy having the game’s top hitting catcher for the next decade.
  2. Gregorius: He’ll be a free agent following the 2019 season, and the only reason I don’t have him above Sanchez is all the young shortstops in the system. Gleyber Torres, Tyler Wade, Thairo Estrada, etc. Still, a shortstop who is above-average on both sides of the ball and is as wonderful as Didi is off the field is worth keeping.
  3. Gray: Like Gregorius, Gray will be a free agent following the 2019 season. I am normally cool with going year-to-year with pitchers because of the injury risk, and I’d probably wait another year with Gray, but there is some urgency here. He’s not under control for that long.
  4. Judge: I have no idea how this dude will age because of his size. It’s such a unique profile. Also, the Yankees already have Judge under team control through his age 30 season, so they’re getting his prime. It’s not like he’s due to become a free agent at age 26 or something.
  5. Severino: Pitchers break, man. Severino is at the bottom because the Yankees have him through the 2022 season. He’s not hitting the open market anytime soon. Going year-to-year is fine with me. The Yankees did that with Chien-Ming Wang and saved millions when he broke down. They can afford to pay big arbitration raises, if necessary.

Steering clear of big money free agents — that doesn’t mean staying away from free agents entirely, just the super expensive ones — would give the Yankees enough payroll space to sign one or two of their young cornerstone players to a long-term contract, which will potentially save millions down the road. Short-term pain (higher luxury tax during pre-arbitration years) for long-term gain (below market salaries in the future). The Yankees signed Robinson Cano to an extension through his arbitration years and first few free agent years and didn’t regret it for a second.

Personally, I don’t think the Yankees are going to sign anyone long-term until they get under the luxury tax threshold and reset their luxury tax rate, which is currently the maximum 50%. Once they do that, they’ll be in much better position to lock up their own players (Sanchez, Judge, Severino, etc.) and spend big for free agents (coughBryceHarpercough). The Yankees have some payroll space to play around with this offseason, though they won’t spend wildly like they did during the 2013-14 offseason. This is their best chance to get under the luxury tax threshold and they’re not going to miss it.

Subtracting velocity has been key to Luis Severino’s improved changeup

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Regardless of what happens the rest of the year, this has been an overwhelmingly positive season for the Yankees and their youth movement. Both Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez emerged as bonafide middle of the order thumpers in their first full MLB seasons, and Luis Severino bounced back from a disappointing 2016 season to become a legitimate Cy Young candidate. He’s going to finish in the top five of the voting. Maybe top three.

What’s the difference between 2016 Severino and 2017 Severino? A lot of things, really. First and foremost, I think his command is so much better. Command is not something we can measure — walk rate is a control stat, not a command stat — it’s something we have to see. Based on my observations, Severino is doing a much better job locating on the edges of the plate, and just off the plate. He made a lot of middle-middle mistakes last year.

Second, confidence. Last season it appeared Severino got scared out of the strike zone at times, and a little fastball shy. And who could blame him? He was young and getting hit hard. This year he looks like a dominator on the mound. He’s oozing confidence and you can tell he knows he’s in command of the game. There is no doubt in my mind last year’s success out of the bullpen contributes to that. He took the bullpen mentality to the rotation.

And third, his changeup. Severino always had a quality changeup coming up through the minors. We saw it in 2015. Last year he didn’t have much success with the pitch, and as a result he basically stopped throwing it late in the year. Even when he moved back into the rotation. He’d throw one or two per start, maybe. Back in 2015 he threw 10-20 changeups per start. Last season he made eleven starts and threw double-digit changeups only five times.

This season Severino is again sitting the 10-20 changeup range, and he’s throwing more and more changeups as the season progresses. Heck, he threw 29 changeups in a game against the Red Sox back in July. That never would’ve happened last year. The thing that has caught my eye about Severino’s changeup, especially the last few weeks, is the velocity. Here is his changeup velocity by start with error bars showing the minimum and maximum velocities, via Brooks Baseball:

luis-severino-changeup

In 2015 and 2016, Severino’s changeup sat right around 90 mph and didn’t deviate too much from that velocity. His slowest changeup from 2015-16: 85.5 mph. His fastest changeup from 2015-16: 94 mph, and I’m pretty sure that’s a mistake. PitchFX must has classified a fastball with a little extra sink on it as a changeup. His second fastest changeup from 2015-16 was 91.7 mph, so yeah, that’s probably it.

For all intents and purposes, Severino’s changeup velocity range was 85 mph to 92 mph from 2015-16. This year, as you can see from the error bars in the graph, he’s thrown his changeup down around 80 mph in several starts, with a few in the 70s as well. Look at his last few starts in particular. Severino has been throwing his changeup anywhere from 80 mph to 90 mph. Heck, Severino threw a 79.0 mph changeup and a 90.1 mph changeup in the same at-bat Saturday. From Baseball Savant:

luis-severino-nomar-mazaraLast year I thought part of Severino’s problem was the lack of separation between his pitches. I’m pretty sure I wrote that somewhere, but I can’t seem to find it now. Whatever. (Update: Here it is!) Anyway, everything Severino threw was hard. It was all 90 mph and above, for the most part. Throwing hard is great, but big league hitters can time velocity if you give them enough time adjust, and when everything (fastball, slider, changeup) comes in around the same velocity, it’s that much easier to time.

This year Severino is achieving much greater velocity separation between his fastball and changeup. His average fastball is 97.7 mph. That’s ridiculous. It’s also the highest average fastball velocity among pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title by nearly one full mile an hour. (Chad Kuhl is second at 96.9 mph. No, really.) Catching up to 97.7 mph is hard enough. Now imagine doing it when the pitcher could bust out a low-80s (or even upper-70s) changeup. That’s how aces are made. We’re talking about a 15-20 mph separation between the fastball and changeup. That’s enormous. The league average is 9.1 mph.

Severino’s success this season — there’s basically nothing that could happen the last two and a half weeks that would take him off Cy Young ballot at this point — is the result of many things. Improved command, more confidence, experience, natural growth, and an improved changeup. That pitch was a non-factor for him much of last season. This year it is a legitimate weapon, and it’s only his third pitch. The fastball-slider combination is damn near elite. Add in a changeup that is approaching Bugs Bunny status, and there’s every reason to believe this version of Severino is here to stay.

The Same, but Different: Luis Severino in 2017

(Gregory Shamus/Getty)
(Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Tonight, the Yankees conclude their most important series of the year. A win in this tilt against the Red Sox would pull them to within 3.5 games of the AL East with a month left to play and maintain–or improve–their wild card lead against the annoyingly hard-charging Minnesota Twins. It’s a game in which you’d love to have your best on the mound and, fortunately, the Yankees do in Luis Severino. A year ago, if I told you that you’d want Severino starting the biggest game of the biggest series of the year, would you have believed me?

Severino has been nothing short of super this year. If it weren’t for Chris Sale being Chris Sale and Corey Kluber being, well, Corey Kluber, Severino might have a shot at the Cy Young Award, something inconceivable last season. Looks like he’ll have to settle for a top-5 (hopefully top 3) finish, barring any big changes from either pitcher. The promise we saw back in 2015 is finally coming to fruition. So what happened? More of the same, in a way.

His arsenal hasn’t changed from 2015-2016 until now; he’s still throwing a fastball, a slider, and a changeup. His usage for this year is slightly different. Like most Yankee pitchers this year, he’s dealing his fastball a little less, which has led to a necessary bump in usage of his other pitches: around a two percent increase in changeup usage and around a one percent increase in slider usage. The results form this change have been fantastic.

He’s getting batters to chase those same pitches more, with a career high 33.3% O-Swing rate. He’s getting batters to miss those pitches more with a career low 74.6% contact rate; his slider has been the main cause of this, jumping from a 24.78 whiff per swing rate in 2015-16 to a 34.02% rate in 2017. That same slider has also seen a massive jump in ground ball rate, from an already solid mark in the mid-50’s all the way up to 63.64. Perhaps the most important factor, though, is an obvious one for 2017, given the context of the majors: home runs.

In 2015 (1.30 HR/9) and 2016 (1.39), the long ball was a big problem for Luis. But, even with struggles in 2016, he’s managed to drop his HR/FB% from 17.3 to 16.4 to 15.1. That leaves his HR/9 this year at 1.05, still perhaps a touch high, but not too bad considering the rest of his stellar numbers. Despite a slight increase in HR rate with his slider (8.62 up from 8.00 in ’15-’16), both the fastball and changeup have seen drops. All three have become positive pitches.

We knew Sevy had a great fastball from day one and that it was his secondary stuff that would dictate his success. Despite it being his roughest pitch, Severino is 9th in the majors this year in terms of run value per 100 pitches with his changeup. He ranks 14th with his slider. We could argue, then, that his ‘lesser’ pitches have surpassed his calling card.

Luis Severino has been nothing short of incredible this year, especially in the light of a horrific year in 2016. He’s turned himself around and made himself into one of the best pitchers in the AL, despite not changing all too much about himself as a pitcher. Here’s hoping that tonight is his signature performance in an already amazing year.