Tommy Kahnle: The former Trenton Thunder reliever returns [2017 Season Review]

Even when it's not the Wild Card Game, he always looks this hyped up. (Elsa/Getty Images)
Even when it’s not the Wild Card Game, he always looks this hyped up. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Four years ago — when he was striking out 11.1 batters per nine innings with the Trenton Thunder — it was easy to imagine Tommy Kahnle being an impact reliever with the New York Yankees.

A year ago? That was tougher to imagine.

Kahnle’s 2017 season is a story of a reliever figuring things out and arriving in a place able to showcase his talents.

Before the trade

There’s a reason Kahnle wasn’t highly sought after prior to the 2017 trade deadline. The former Rule 5 Draft pick had long struggled with his command, walking north of a batter every other inning even in the minors. LaTroy Hawkins, former Yankee (and nearly every other team), called him “one of his worst teammates ever.” His high velocity, accompanied by top-notch strikeout rates, made him an interesting prospect, one on which both the Rockies and White Sox took a chance.

What changed in 2017 were the walks. In 36 innings with the White Sox, he walked just seven batters after walking 20 in nine fewer innings a year prior. Meanwhile, he actually upped his strikeouts, K’ing a shocking 42.6 percent of batters while more than halving his walk rate. Surely some of this was small sample size noise, but it looked like a legitimate turnaround.

And so on July 19, he was flipped with more well-known players Todd Frazier and David Robertson to the Yankees for Blake Rutherford, Tito Polo, Ian Clarkin and Tyler Clippard. Despite Frazier and Robertson’s respective reputations, Kahnle seemed to be the centerpiece of the deal. Under team control for 3.5 seasons and not even arbitration eligible, he was both cheap and effective. The two veterans had larger contracts with shorter terms.

An ugly August

Kahnle pitched in his first game after the trade and struck out two batters in an inning. He struck out eight batters over six outings before allowing a hit and didn’t walk anyone until his 11th game in New York. But beginning in late July, he gave up a fair number of hits.

From July 29 to Aug. 30, he gave up 17 hits and walked five in 12 1/3 innings. He continued to get strikeouts, 14 to be exact, but he allowed a .327/.383/.481 line. He essentially turned the opposition into 2009 Derek Jeter.

Kahnle’s worst stretch in pinstripes came in three outings from Aug. 18-23 against the Red Sox and Tigers. While recording just five outs, he gave up five runs on seven hits, one home run and two walks, striking out just one. Before that stretch, he’d allowed the go-ahead inherited runner to score in a crushing loss to Boston on Aug. 13 and hadn’t seemed like the surefire middle inning reliever the Yankees had acquired.

His fastball and slider velocity both trended down in August by about 0.8 mph, which may have been due to fatigue. He’d thrown in 20 games over his last 43 days by the end of the month. He was already at 57 total appearances after throwing in just 52 games between AAA and the majors in 2016 and 57 in 2015.

A return to form

After his slight downturn, Kahnle was removed from most high leverage innings in September and subsequently began to thrive. His velocity didn’t jump, but he cut down on the usage of his slider. He’d used it 25.3 percent of the time in July. But once he came to the Yankees, he cut it down to 15.2 percent in August and 5.8 percent in September. Meanwhile, he increased his reliance on his changeup in August and became fastball heavy in September.

For the final month of the year, he allowed just eight hits in 10 innings (though he walked five) and gave up just one run. He struck out 15 of 41 batters faced and didn’t give up a single extra-base hit. That was the Kahnle the Yankees were expecting in the trade.

It was perfect timing for the Bombers, who would need his arm in October.

Postseason excellence until the end

With Dellin Betances out of the mix, Kahnle moved up a spot in Joe Girardi‘s circle of trust in the postseason. He returned the favor by not giving up a run until the Yankees’ last game.

In the Wild Card Game, he recorded seven outs, his most of the season and highest total since his rookie season. While he struck out just one batter, he retired every batter he faced and provided the bridge from Robertson to Aroldis Chapman to secure the Yankees’ advancement. He also got a bit lucky on a peculiar grounder down the first-base line.

His shining moment was likely ALDS Game 4. Entering the game with two on and none out in the eighth inning, he proceeded to strike out five of the next six batters en route to his first (and only) save of the year. He was dominance personified and allowed the Yankees to save Robertson and Chapman for the crucial Game 5 two days later.

Kahnle pitched two scoreless innings in ALCS Game 2 before throwing three scoreless in the Bronx over Games 3 and 5. He allowed some hard contact in the last outing as he worked past his career-high in innings. He’d previous thrown 68 2/3 with the Rockies in 2014, but eclipsed that with 74 between the regular season and playoffs this year.

So that fatigued reared its ugly head in Game 7 against the Astros. He allowed three runs, tarnishing his unblemished postseason and turning a 1-0 game into a 4-0 game. With the way Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers were pitching, it may not have mattered, but it felt like the nail in the coffin for the Yankees.

2018 Outlook

Kahnle remains under Yankees control for a while and figures to keep his prominent spot in the bullpen, provided he can keep up his 2017 breakout. His walk rate certainly climbed post-trade and he’ll have to prove whether his turnaround in command was for real or a mere flash in the pan.

Still, even with an elevated walk rate, Kahnle was still an effective reliever for the Yankees and will continue to be a key cog in middle relief. His first full year in pinstripes is a big opportunity for the 28-year-old righty.

The (Chad) Green Monster [2017 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Fans and analysts have a very natural tendency to declare winners and losers immediately after a trade. In all sports. A deal gets made and wow it’s great for this team and terrible for that team. There is definitely something to be said for evaluating a trade using only the information available at the time it is made. Most deals take years to fully evaluate, however.

Two offseasons ago the Yankees traded Justin Wilson, one of their top bullpen arms, to the Tigers for two prospects most people didn’t know. Never heard of ’em. Luis Cessa went from the Mets to the Tigers in the Yoenis Cespedes trade a few weeks earlier, so maybe people had heard of him, but that’s it. The instant reaction to the trade: what the hell are the Yankees doing? It was pretty universal.

Now, two years later, the trade looks borderline genius for the Yankees. Wilson was very good for the Tigers the last two years — he stopped throwing strikes after getting traded to the Cubs for whatever reason (19 walks in 17.2 innings) — so it’s not like he flamed out immediately. The trade looks great because Chad Green, the real “who the heck is that guy?” piece of the trade, broke out as one of the best relievers in baseball this year.

Starting The Season In The Minors

Green started the 2017 season in High Class-A. True story. Jordan Montgomery won the fifth starter’s job, but the Yankees were planning to use April off-days to skip the fifth starter’s spot the first two times through the rotation, so Montgomery went to the minors. They had Montgomery and Green pitch on the same schedule just to have two fifth starter options available in case someone got hurt. The Triple-A Scranton and Double-A Trenton schedules didn’t line up, so to High-A went Green.

Green made one start with High-A Tampa, allowing one run on two hits and no walks in four innings while on a pitch count. The Yankees brought Montgomery to the big leagues sooner than expected to give their top four starters extra rest, at which point Green was bumped up to Triple-A Scranton. He made five starts with the RailRiders, pitching to a 4.73 ERA (2.59 FIP) in 26.2 innings. Ugh, the Yankees lost the trade!

It wasn’t until May 8th, when the Yankees needed a fresh long reliever following that 18-inning marathon at Wrigley Field, that Green was called up this season. It was expected to be a short-term thing. Soak up some innings until the other relievers were back at full strength, then go back down. Green threw a scoreless inning against the Reds the day after being called up, and five days later, he threw 3.2 nearly perfect innings against the Astros, allowing the Yankees to come back from a 3-1 deficit to earn an 11-6 win.

The Yankees eliminated the bullpen shuttle this season. After shuttling fresh arms up and down as necessary the last few years, they stopped doing it this year, so Green stuck around. Jonathan Holder and Chasen Shreve threw three innings apiece in that 18-inning game against the Cubs. In the past, they would’ve been on a plane to Scranton the next day. Instead, the Yankees kept them around the same way they kept Green around following his relief outing against Houston.

Four days after that hero relief outing against the ‘Stros, Green tossed three shutout innings against the Royals. Three days after that it was 1.2 scoreless innings against the Rays, and that was his first real taste of important innings. Joe Girardi brought Green into the sixth inning with a one-run lead and let him pitch the sixth and seventh. It was impossible not to notice Green’s strong work.

A little bump in the road came next. Green gave up two runs in 1.1 innings against the Athletics on May 28th, then one run in 2.2 innings against the Blue Jays  on June 1st. It was the first time he looked human out of the bullpen. Green rebounded by going ten up, ten down with five strikeouts against the Red Sox on June 6th. In his first month after being called up, Green had a 1.62 ERA (3.22 FIP) in seven appearances and 16.2 innings. He wasn’t going back down.

That Weird Spot Start

The Yankees made it all the way to June 11th, the 60th game of the season, before they needed to use a sixth starter. And they didn’t even need to use a sixth starter that game. They voluntarily used a sixth starter in order to push the struggling Masahiro Tanaka back one day, allowing him to face the Mike Trout-less Angels in Anaheim rather than the home run happy Orioles at Yankee Stadium.

Initial reports indicated Domingo German would get called up for the spot start. He lined up perfectly and he’d been pitching well in Triple-A, so it seemed like the obvious move. The Yankees changed course at the last moment, and decided to give Green the spot start instead. But! They still called up German anyway to serve as the just in case long man. It was … weird.

Green made the start, needed 53 pitches to allow two runs in two innings, then German came out of the bullpen to throw 2.2 scoreless mop-up innings in his MLB debut. They were good mop-up innings. The Yankees won that game 14-3. Aaron Judge hit a 495 foot homer. In the end, it all worked out. It was just a weird decision. Green was not fully stretched out, German was, yet they started Green and used German in relief. It was the last start Green would make this season. Possibly ever.

The Multi-Inning Dominance

It wasn’t until July that Girardi started to use Green in high-leverage spots regularly. His numbers were ridiculous — Green from June 25th to July 23rd: 16.2 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 26 K — but Girardi loves defined roles, and Green didn’t really have one. Aroldis Chapman was the closer and Dellin Betances and David Robertson were the setup men. Green pitched whenever those guys weren’t available, basically.

From June 12th (the day after the spot start) through the end of the season Green threw 50.1 innings across 32 appearances with a 1.61 ERA (1.27 FIP). He struck out 80 batters (42.8 K%) in those 50.1 innings and held opposing hitters to a .152/.211/.234 batting line against. On August 30th, Green became the first pitcher in history to strike out seven while facing no more than eight batters in an appearance. Hey, obscure history is still history!

Green finished the regular season with a 1.83 ERA (1.75 FIP) and 103 strikeouts in 69 nice innings. If we remove that one kinda pointless spot start, here’s where Green ranked in various categories among the 150 relievers who threw 50+ innings this season:

  • ERA: 1.61 (5th)
  • FIP: 1.75 (4th)
  • ERA-: 37 (5th)
  • FIP-: 38 (3rd)
  • K: 100 (5th)
  • K%: 41.0% (3rd)
  • BB%: 6.6% (30th)
  • fWAR: +2.3 (6th)
  • bWAR: +2.7 (10th)

In terms of total value, Green was a top ten reliever in baseball this season despite not being called up until May 8th, 30 games into the season. On a rate basis, he was a top five reliever in baseball. Maybe top three. He was that good. He was basically the second coming of 2014 Betances. Betances had a 1.40 ERA (1.64 FIP) in 2014. Green had a 1.61 ERA (1.75 FIP) as a reliever this year. Ridiculous.

Dellin’s walk problems, Adam Warren‘s poorly timed back injury, and Girardi’s general indifference to Tommy Kahnle meant Green went into the postseason as the No. 3 reliever. And Girardi needed him right away. One out into the Wild Card Game. The Twins jumped on Luis Severino early and Green came out of the bullpen to get maybe the two biggest outs of the season. Minnesota was up 3-0 and had runners on second and third with one out in the first inning. Green struck out Byron Buxton and Jason Castro to stop the bleeding.

Falling behind 3-0 in the first inning of a winner-take-all game really stinks, but an early 3-0 deficit is manageable. Falling behind 4-0 or 5-0 though? That’s when things start to get scary. Once you’re no longer able to take the lead with a grand slam, you’re in trouble. Green got two enormous outs to strand those runners at second and third, giving the Yankees a chance to make the comeback they ultimately made.

Green had a notable hiccup in Game Two of the ALDS, retiring only one of the four batters he faced and allowing that crushing grand slam to Francisco Lindor, following Girardi’s non-challenge. He did not pitch again in the series, though in the ALCS, he got right back up on the horse and allowed one unearned run in 6.1 innings while striking out seven Astros. The ALDS Game Two blip was pretty bad. Everything else about Green’s postseason was great.

The Best Fastball In Baseball, Maybe

Green was incredible this season. What made him incredible is pretty … incredible. Green is not quite a one-pitch pitcher, but he is close. He threw his fastball 76.5% of the time this season, one of the highest rates in baseball. This year 222 pitchers threw at least 200 fastballs. Here is the fastball whiffs-per-swing leaderboard:

  1. Chad Green: 39.8%
  2. Craig Kimbrel: 39.1%
  3. Josh Hader: 38.8%
  4. Corey Knebel: 34.0%
  5. Jacob deGrom: 32.5%
    (MLB average: 20.1%)

No pitcher got more empty swings with his fastball this season than Green. His whiffs-per-swing rate was nearly double the league average. Furthermore, consider what happened when batters did actually make contact and put Green’s fastball in play (minimum 50 fastballs in play):

  • AVG: .120 (3rd lowest behind Ryan Madson and Darren O’Day)
  • ISO: .083 (17th lowest)
  • wOBA: .136 (3rd lowest behind Madson and O’Day)
  • xwOBA: .184 (3rd lowest behind O’Day and Madson)

When hitters swung at Green’s fastball, they missed more than they did against any other fastball in baseball. And when they did did make contact with Green’s fastball, they did basically no damage. That’s how you dominate with one pitch. Miss bats and get weak contact. Do one of those things and you’re in good shape. Do both and you’re one of the most effective pitchers in the game.

Now what, exactly, makes Green’s fastball so great? Velocity? Sure, though averaging 96.1 mph and topping out at 99.8 mph like Green did this year is hardly unheard of these days. Turn on any random game on a given night and you’ll probably see one or two guys come out of the bullpen throwing that hard. Spin rate? Yeah, probably. Green’s average fastball spin rate of 2,487 rpm was 13th highest among those 222 pitchers who threw 200+ fastballs in 2017.

Deception? Almost certainly, and this factor interests me most. The average perceived velocity of Green’s fastball, which tells us how fast the pitch looks to the batter when accounting for spin and extension and all that, was 96.1 mph. Identical to his actual average velocity. And yet, that whiffs-per-swing rate and xwOBA, man. There’s something going on here. I think it might be right here …

chad-green-deception

… when Green’s arm disappears behind his back during his delivery, that gives hitters problems. The ball disappears behind Green’s back then bam, he explodes forward and the fastball is right on you with all that velocity and spin. I could be completely and totally wrong, and probably am. I’m just looking for possible explanations here. Something about Green makes his fastball even more effective than the high-end velocity and elite spin would lead you to believe. Whatever it is, it helped Green emerge as a dominant reliever and a bullpen fixture for the Yankees in 2017.

2018 Outlook

The Yankees, as they always do when a starter-turned-reliever has success, will have Green come to Spring Training as a starting pitcher next year. I don’t think it’ll work for reasons I’ve detailed several times already (no changeup, only an okay slider, lack of grounders, etc.) but there’s no harm in trying it in camp. That’s exactly when you should experiment. Get Green stretched out to four or five innings and see what happens.

More than likely Green will wind up back in the bullpen at some point, where he’ll again be a key setup man alongside Robertson and a hopefully fixed Betances. His ability to go multiple innings — Green recorded at least four outs in 29 of his 39 relief appearances this year, and at least six outs 16 times — is incredibly valuable, especially with starters throwing fewer and fewer innings with each passing season, and I hope the next manager recognizes that and uses Green accordingly.

Sonny with a Lack of Run Support [2017 Season Review]

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Going into Spring Training this year, the Yankees really had no idea what their 2018 rotation would look like. Michael Pineda and CC Sabathia were going to be free agents, Masahiro Tanaka could opt out this winter, and the other two spots were wide open. The hope was Luis Severino would grab one of those spots and run with it. The other spot? Who knows.

Now, ten months later, four of the five rotation spots are ostensibly accounted for the next two years. Severino broke out this year, Tanaka didn’t opt out, and Jordan Montgomery grabbed that wide open rotation spot. The fourth starter was a trade deadline pickup. The Yankees imported right-hander Sonny Gray from the Athletics in a midseason trade. The trade details:

That’s three of my top 12 prospects coming into the season — I was the low man on Fowler too, most ranked him in the top ten — to Oakland for a pitcher who threw 117 innings with a 5.69 ERA (4.67 FIP) around forearm and lat injuries last season. Of course, Kaprielian had Tommy John surgery in April and Fowler blew out his knee in July, and Mateo didn’t hit much the previous year and a half, so it was almost an all damaged goods trade.

Prior to the trade Gray threw 97 innings with a 3.43 ERA (3.25 FIP) in 16 starts with Oakland, which was considerably better than his 2016 output but also not quite as good as his 2015 effort (2.73 ERA and 3.45 FIP), which earned him a third place finish in the AL Cy Young voting. In his final six starts with the A’s, Gray allowed six earned runs and held opponents to a .164/.215/.271 batting line. Now let’s dive into his time in pinstripes.

Late Season Walk Problems

The Yankees welcomed Gray to the team by committing three errors behind him in his very first inning in pinstripes. Three errors in the span of four batters to start the game. Cool, cool. Sonny took the loss that game — he allowed four runs (two earned) in six innings — partly because of the errors, but mostly because Corey Kluber struck out eleven in the one-run complete game.

Gray allowed no more than two earned runs in his first five starts and seven of his first eight starts with the Yankees — at one point this year he allowed no more than two earned runs in eleven straight starts, the longest such streak in baseball in 2017 — and on September 12th, he threw his best game with the Yankees. He held the Rays to two runs in eight innings at Citi Field. The offense didn’t give him any support (more on that in a bit), so he ended up taking the loss, though it wasn’t his fault. Sign me up for two runs in eight innings every day of the week.

Through his first eight starts with the Yankees, Gray had a 2.66 ERA (4.14 FIP) and only once did he allow more than two earned runs. Only two times did he fail to complete at least six innings, and one of those two times he threw 5.2 innings. Gray was pretty much exactly as advertised. The Yankees had a chance to win every game he pitched.

Sonny’s last three starts of the regular season were a slog, mostly because he had trouble locating and worked himself into trouble with walks. Gray walked ten batters in his final three regular season starts and 14.2 innings, and he also ran into some home run trouble. The Red Sox tagged him for three homers on September 1st. The Rays hit two on September 12th and two more on September 28th. Gray allowed nine homers in six September starts after allowing ten homers from April through August.

The walks were a bit more worrisome than the home runs because a) home runs are going to happen in Yankee Stadium, and b) it wasn’t just the raw walk totals. Gray was behind in the count often and his pitch count was getting elevated. Those problems continued in Game One of the ALDS, as Gray walked four in 3.1 innings. So that’s 14 walks (and 12 strikeouts) in the span of four starts and 18 innings. Yikes.

Those walks combined with his generally slow pace earned Gray the “nibbler” tag even though walks had never really been a problem for him before, and his overall zone rate was basically league average the last few years. There are few things more annoying than pitchers who don’t throw strikes and pitchers who work slowly. Sonny managed to combine the worst of both worlds in his final few starts. That wasn’t fun.

I think the late season walk problem was more than likely the result of some mechanical issues and/or a result of the homers, which might’ve scared Gray out of the strike zone a bit. The biggest thing to me is health. As long as Gray is healthy, I’m not worried about the walks. I expect them to come down. Most pitchers run into a control rough patch every now and then — Tanaka never walks anyone, but he walked five in a four-inning start this year — and Sonny just so happened to have one late in the year.

Gray was able to rebound in his ALCS Game Four start — after the rough ALDS Game One outing, the Yankees pushed Gray as far back as possible in the ALCS — holding the Astros to two runs (one earned) on one hit and two walks in five innings plus two batters.

All told, Sonny posted a 3.72 ERA (4.87 FIP) in eleven starts and 65.1 innings with the Yankees after the trade. The walks and dingers in September really screwed up his fielding independent numbers.

A Lack Of Run Support

In terms of pitching style, Gray reminds me a lot of Hiroki Kuroda. He throws the kitchen sink at you — Gray throws four pitches at least 15% of the time each (four-seamer, sinker, curveball, slider) and a fifth (changeup) 6% of the time — but he has power (93.8 mph average fastball), so it’s not like he’s out there throwing slop. And, as David Adler explained, Sonny has multiple versions of each pitch because he varies the break and spin on everything. Kuroda was the same way.

Gray is also similar to Kuroda in that his team never scores any damn runs for him. The Yankees never seemed to score for Kuroda. They sure as heck didn’t score for Gray this year. The Yankees scored 39 runs total in Gray’s eleven starts this year — nine of those 39 runs came in one game — or 3.55 runs per game. They scored 819 runs in their other 151 games, or 5.42 runs per game. Good grief.

I don’t know where it started, but there was this “the Yankees don’t score runs for Gray because he works so slowly” narrative that was floating around for a while. It’s true that Gray works slowly — he averaged 28.4 seconds between pitches this season, most in baseball among the 58 pitchers who threw enough innings to qualify for the ERA title — but is that the reason the Yankees didn’t score? Are the position players thrown so out of whack by his pace that they can’t hit?

I decided to make a graph. Here is pitcher pace plotted against run support for the 131 individual pitchers who qualified the ERA title the last two years. There are some duplicates in here — there’s a 2016 Kluber and a 2017 Kluber, etc. — but this is just a real quick plot for season review purposes.

pace-vs-run-support

The R² of the trendline is 0.00004. In English, that means there is basically zero correlation between a pitcher’s pace and the run support he receives. Shocking, I know. Who would’ve guessed run support is not a pitcher skill? The whole “he doesn’t get run support because he works so slowly” narrative always struck me as one those things someone said to explain something they couldn’t otherwise explain, and it sounded just plausible enough that people bought it.

I have no idea why the Yankees didn’t score runs for Gray. I have no idea why the Yankees didn’t score runs for Kuroda either. Sometimes pitchers just don’t get run support. It happens. Across full seasons too. It’s annoying. Believe me, I know. I’m sure Gray knows too. The guy has thrown 21.1 postseason innings in his career, and in those 21.1 innings, his team has scored zero (0) runs with him on the mound. What the hell? He’s cursed. Cursed by the run support gods.

2018 Outlook

The Yankees traded for Gray to improve their 2018 and 2019 chances as much as their 2017 chances. He is under control for another two seasons, which is pretty awesome. When healthy, Gray is really good. He’s a bulldog with a deep repertoire who takes video game stuff to the mound more often than not. The Yankees don’t need him to be the ace — that’s up to Severino and Tanaka — but Sonny has the potential to pitch at that level.

Like I said, as long as Gray is healthy, I don’t have any real worry that his late season walk problems will be a long-term issue. I think it was just one of those things. And the lack of run support … I dunno. I can’t explain it. The Yankees figure to again have a very good offense next season, and if Sonny makes 30 starts, chances are he’s going to get plenty of run support. I feel like Gray is really being overlooked right now. He’s an impact pitcher in the prime of his career and the Yankees got him while trading no one off their MLB roster. Couldn’t ask for anything more.

Houdini Returns [2017 Season Review]

(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Nearly three years ago to the day, the Yankees signed Andrew Miller to a four-year, $36 MM deal, effectively (or so we thought) ending David Robertson‘s career in pinstripes. It was a sensible move, as the team stood to save $2.5 MM per year against what Robertson would end up signing for in Chicago, while also picking up a draft pick (which turned into Kyle Holder). It was an odd feeling nevertheless to see the heir to Mariano Rivera pack up and go – and it was an equally great feeling to see him back in the Bronx.

A New Fireman In Town

When Robertson was brought back into the fold, it was made abundantly clear that he would be utilized in whatever capacity the Yankees needed. The always-endearing Robertson said that he didn’t need a defined role out of the bullpen, and Joe Girardi utilized him as such. He entered his first game back in the 7th inning (striking out the side), and then pitched the eighth in back-to-back games. Robertson’s next two appearances came in the 9th in non-save situations, and then it was back to the 8th for a game. And then his next eight appearances started like this: 9th, 6th, 8th, 7th, 6th, 8th, 9th, 7th. Here’s the breakdown of Robertson’s regular season appearances with the Yankees, by the inning in which he entered:

  • 5th inning: 1
  • 6th inning: 3
  • 7th inning: 6
  • 8th inning: 14
  • 9th inning: 5
  • Extra innings: 1

Were it not for Dellin Betances‘ struggles, which necessitated Robertson becoming the steadying presence in the 8th, we may well have seen the numbers around that inning increase even further. And, more importantly, he thrived in the absence of a designated inning.

Pure Dominance

Take a moment to marvel at Robertson’s regular season line with the Yankees:

35 IP, 14 H, 12 BB, 51 K, 1.03 ERA, 442 ERA+, 2.10 FIP, 38.6 K%, 9.1 BB%, 54.4 GB%

Dominant doesn’t really begin to cover it, does it? This was Robertson at his absolute best, as he racked up whiffs, kept his walks at a more than manageable level, and kept the ball on the ground when hitters did manage to make contact. He didn’t allow a run over his final fifteen appearances (18 IP), either. This was a better version of the pitcher that earned an All-Star nod and down ballot Cy Young and MVP votes in 2011, and it was glorious.

It was also a slightly different version of Robertson. Consider his pitch selection over his ten-year career:

brooksbaseball-chart

Over the first nine-plus years of his career, between 65 and 80% of Robertson’s offerings were cutters. Upon returning to the Yankees, however, he settled into a 50/50 split (or thereabouts) between his cutter and his curveball – and it obviously paid huge dividends. The contrast grew even more stark in the playoffs, when his curveball became his go-to pitch:

brooksbaseball-chart-1

It will be interesting to see how his approach changes when the 2018 season rolls around.

The Playoffs

Robertson was one of the team’s many heroes in the Wild Card game, holding down the fort for 3.1 IP. He entered with the bases loaded in the third, and allowed one of the runners to score, but he was fantastic the rest of the way. He also gave us this immortal image, as we all felt Gary Sanchez‘s pain:

(Elsa/Getty Images)
(Elsa/Getty Images)

The rest of the postseason didn’t work out as well for Robertson, unfortunately. He blew a save in game two of the ALDS against the Indians, and was absolutely shelled by the Astros in game six of the ALCS. He did fine work in between, including a tremendous effort in the decisive game of the ALDS, and was far from the blame for the series loss as a whole (he didn’t take a loss or surrender a lead), but it was a disappointing end to an otherwise stellar reunion.

That being said, my lasting memories of season one back in pinstripes will be the dominance.

2018 Outlook

Robertson is under contract for $13 MM in 2018, the last year of his deal. The Yankees always have a lot of moving parts in the bullpen, so it remains to be seen how he will be deployed, but I don’t see him being traded. With Chad Green potentially earning a look in the rotation and Dellin Betances figuring things out, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if he opened the season as the set-up man.

The Ups and Downs of Aroldis Chapman [2017 Season Review]

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

In pure baseball terms, the sequence of Aroldis Chapman deals was brilliant. For the Yankees, that is. The Yankees bought low on Chapman two offseasons ago, getting him from the Reds for four prospects they don’t miss. They then traded him to the desperate to end their World Series drought Cubs for a player who is now arguably baseball’s best prospect (plus others!). Then the Yankees re-signed Chapman last offseason as a free agent. Didn’t even have to give up a draft pick.

Chapman’s second stint in pinstripes started when he signed a five-year contract worth $86M, the largest reliever contract in history in terms of both total dollars and average annual salary. A contract that large is always a risk, that’s just the way it is, though the case could be made Chapman was riskier than most. He endured a large workload last postseason and so one really knows how effective he’ll be when he inevitably starts to lose some velocity.

Year one of that five-year contract was very much a mixed bag. Okay in the beginning, legitimately terrible in the middle, and excellent late. Ultimately, Chapman did what the Yankees signed him to do. He helped get them to the postseason and he was a monster in October, closing out big games against great teams. Let’s review the first season of Chapman’s second stint in pinstripes.

An Early Season Injury

The first few weeks of the 2017 season were fairly routine for Chapman. He allowed one run on six hits and four walks in his first 12 games and 11.1 innings, striking out 18. Opponents hit .150/.227/.200 against him and he went 7-for-7 in save chances. One of those save chances was pretty adventurous — Chapman was called on to protect a three-run lead at Fenway Park on April 26th, and the inning went:

  • Andrew Benintendi six-pitch walk
  • Mookie Betts six-pitch double
  • Chris Young two-pitch run-scoring ground out
  • Hanley Ramirez seven-pitch walk (wild pitch moved Betts to third)
  • Jackie Bradley Jr. four-pitch strikeout
  • Josh Rutledge eight-pitch strikeout

There were a lot of long at-bats — eight pitches to strike out Josh Rutledge? really? —  and loud contact that game, though considering Chapman’s next four outings were basically flawless, the game at Fenway appeared to be a blip. Even the very best closers have a bad game now and then.

Chapman’s midseason troubles started on May 7th, against his former team. Remember that 18-inning game against the Cubs on Sunday Night Baseball? That game went to 18 innings because Chapman blew a three-run lead in the ninth. He allowed three hits, walked two, and plunked Anthony Rizzo to force in the tying run. Annoying! At least the Yankees came back to win, I guess.

Next time out — it was five days after the blown save at Wrigley, so Chapman had plenty of rest — Chapman allowed a run and got only two outs in a loss to the Astros. He needed 24 pitches to face five batters, retiring only two. Worst of all, the hitters looked mighty comfortable in the box against Chapman. Both the Cubs and Astros. They weren’t overwhelmed by his fastball. They seemingly fouled it off at will.

On May 14th, two days after the rough outing against the Astros, the Yankees placed Chapman on the disabled list with left rotator cuff tendinitis. He would miss at least a month. “I was trying to work through it. I was getting treatment. I believed it was going to go away with the treatment that I was getting,” said Chapman, acknowledging he’d been pitching at something less than 100% for a few weeks. Not great!

Chapman returned to the Yankees on June 18th after one rehab appearance, and Joe Girardi eased him back into things after the shoulder injury. That Dellin Betances was nails as the interim closer helped matters. Chapman’s first outing back came in the eighth inning of a game the Yankees were losing in Oakland. Next time out he pitched with a four-run lead in the ninth. The Yankees didn’t seem to be in much of a rush to return Aroldis to important innings.

Demoted

July featured a few hiccups for Chapman, including allowing two runs in a win over the Blue Jays on July 3rd and two more runs in a walk-off loss to the Red Sox on July 14th. He walked Benintendi on five pitches to force in the winning run. Pretty much the yuckiest way to lose a game.

On August 1st, Chapman was sitting on a 2.97 ERA (1.64 FIP) in 30.1 innings, though it sure didn’t feel like he was pitching all that well. Most notably, his 33.6% strikeout rate and 13.4% swing-and-miss rate were well below his career norms (41.4% and 17.2%, respectively). They were great numbers for most pitchers! But for Chapman, they were down noticeably.

aroldis-chapman-swing-and-miss-rate

The wheels came off in August. Chapman walked three, allowed a run, and struck out none in a save against the Red Sox on August 11th. The was the game in which Aaron Hicks threw Eduardo Nunez out at third base when he tried to advance on Benintendi’s sacrifice fly. Remember that?

Two days later Chapman allowed two runs and blew a save against the Red Sox. Rafael Devers took him deep to tie the game in the ninth, then Chapman stayed in to allow the game-losing run in the tenth. Two days after that, Chapman allowed another two runs in a save against the Mets. And three days after that, he allowed two runs in a loss to the Red Sox.

For the first time in his career, Chapman allowed a run in four straight outings and multiple runs in three straight outings. He also gave up home runs to two left-handed batters (Devers, Yonder Alonso) in the span of two weeks after allowing one homer to a left-handed batter from 2011-16. On August 19th, with his ERA sitting at 4.29 and his opponent’s batting line sitting at .235/.331/.338 through 35.2 innings, Chapman was demoted out of the closer’s role.

“I just thought for us to get him on track, maybe the best way would be to move him around a little bit until he gets going,” said Girardi while making no promises Chapman would eventually return to closer. “We might find something that works so well in certain situations we might keep it.”

The day after being demoted, Chapman entered a game against the Red Sox with the Yankees down two runs in the sixth inning, and he recorded four outs without incident. He got one out in the sixth inning with the Yankees down three runs to the Tigers on August 24th, in the brawl game. Chapman took the loss on August 25th when he allowed that home run to Alonso, an extra innings blast that gave the Mariners the win.

From August 26th through September 4th, a span of ten team games, Chapman pitched only once, and that was a scoreless inning against the Red Sox on September 1st. The Yankees were down three runs at the time. (Aroldis against the Red Sox in 2017: 8.2 IP, 8 H, 8 R, 7 ER, 11 BB, 12 K.) The Yankees played several lopsided games in that ten-game span, yet Chapman didn’t pitch. I thought that was odd. Girardi said he was trying to get Chapman back on track, yet he weren’t using him in the sort of games in which you usually try to get a reliever back on track. Huh.

Better Late Than Never

When Chapman returned to the closer’s role, it was almost out of necessity more than anything. Betances allowed a walk-off homer to Manny Machado on September 5th and his control problems were becoming extreme. Chad Green and David Robertson were too important in the middle innings, and Tommy Kahnle had not yet given Girardi a reason to use him in high-leverage spots. So, in mid-September, Chapman took over as closer again.

As it turned out, Chapman returned to the ninth inning with a new fastball grip. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild tweaked Chapman’s grip and got him to use more of a true four-seam grip rather than the slightly offset fastball grip he’d been using basically his entire career. “It’s been an improvement. The fastball is cutting less and I’m able to get more strikes with it right now,” said Chapman to Brendan Kuty.

The improvement was immediate. Velocity was never really a problem for Chapman, even when he was struggling, but his location was awful and there didn’t seem to be much life on the pitch. Hitters fouled off lots of fastballs. Check out the swing-and-miss rate on Chapman’s heater this season. This is whiffs-per-swing, not whiffs-per-total pitches.

  • April: 24.2%
  • May: 44.1% (3.1 innings before injury)
  • June: 17.8% (4.2 innings after injury)
  • July: 22.7%
  • August: 16.1%
  • September: 39.1%

Considering Chapman’s fastball whiffs-per-swing never dipped below 29.3% in any single month from 2013-16 — it never dipped below 32.8% in any full season from 2013-16 — seeing four months well below that mark in the first five months of 2017 was pretty darn scary. Then it bounced back in September. Could a new grip really explain the sudden improvement? I don’t see why not. Change the grip and the pitch will behave differently.

Chapman closed out his 2017 regular season with a scoreless September, allowing only three hits and two walks in 12 innings. He went 6-for-6 in save chances, struck out 17 in those 12 innings, and held opposing batters to a .077/.122/.133 line. All told, Chapman went 22-for-26 in save chances this year and finished with 3.22 ERA (2.56 FIP) and a 32.9% strikeout rate in 50.1 innings. The ERA, FIP, and strikeout rate were his worst marks since his rookie season in 2011.

The strong September carried over into October. Chapman allowed one run in six appearances and eight innings in the postseason — the one run was a big run, it was the walk-off run in ALCS Game Two, though Gary Sanchez deserves much of the blame for failing to catch the relay throw that would’ve cut Jose Altuve down at the plate by a mile — and there were some big outings in there:

  • 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 K in the Wild Card Game (technically not a save situation since the Yankees had a four-run lead, but the season was on the line, so yeah)
  • 1.2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 4 K in ALDS Game Three (another elimination game)
  • 2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 4 K in ALDS Game Five (yet another elimination game)
  • 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 2 K in ALCS Game Four

Two shutout innings against the Indians, the AL’s best team during the regular season, in Game Five to complete the comeback from down 0-2 in the ALDS is no joke. Even with a three-run lead in the ninth (it was a one-run lead in the eighth). That’s a Grown Ass Man save. That’s why the Yankees gave Chapman that record contract. To close out games like that.

Chapman became the first American League pitcher with a multi-inning save in a postseason series clincher since (who else?) Mariano Rivera. Mo did it in Game Six of the 2009 ALCS against the Angels.

And yet, I think Chapman’s most impressive postseason outing was Game Three of the ALDS, when he recorded five outs in an elimination game two days after throwing two innings in Game Two. Chapman was clearly fatigued but he gutted out the save in the 1-0 win to keep the season alive. His final postseason line: 8 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 16 K. The regular season was a bit of a slog at times, but Aroldis was great in October.

2018 Outlook

In all likelihood the downs in Chapman’s up and down season were the result of many things. A hangover effect from last season’s workload, the shoulder issue, mechanical (and grip) issues, so on and so forth. Very rarely is one thing to blame. Chapman again pitched a lot of intense innings this October, and the Yankees did play pretty deep into the year, so the hangover effect is something to watch again next season.

The fact Chapman rebounded late and finished very strong is comforting. If he’d struggled right through the end of the season, it would’ve been a red flag and he’d be a bit of a concern going into 2018. Now that he’s shown he can still dominate, I feel much better about things going forward. There are still four years on Chapman’s contract — he can opt out following the 2019 season — and any red flags in year one are more scary than usual. I’m glad he finished strong.

The Yankees signed Chapman to that five-year contract because they wanted a dominant closer in place when the team was ready to contend again. As it turns out, they were ready to contend in 2017. I don’t think many expected that. The Yankees are ahead of schedule. Chapman’s role doesn’t change though. He’s the closer and the guy the next manager will count on to close out big games. He did it late this year, and as long as he stays healthy, Chapman should be able to do it again next year.

The Collapse of Tyler Clippard [2017 Season Review]

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

When you blog about baseball as much as I do, you need to keep a list of topics and notes handy. I can’t tell you how many great ideas I’ve come up with in the middle of the night only to forget them in the morning. I used to keep everything jotted down in a notebook. Now I use Google docs because I can access it anywhere on my phone. How did we ever live before the internet and smart phones?

Not everything on my list gets turned into a post. I’d say maybe 70% of the stuff I jot down gets turned into a post. Most of the stuff I don’t write up is just dumb. It sounds good in my head, the when I sit down to write it up, I realize how stupid it is. Some unwritten topics are assumptions that are wrong. Are the Yankees swinging more often in 3-0 counts? Turns out the answer was yes. Many assumptions are wrong though. Most are recency bias.

One of the worst things in the blogging game is having a great topic rendered moot because you wait too long to write it up. Every time we write up a Scouting The Market post, I make sure to get it on the site as soon as possible because I don’t want the player to get traded or the free agent to sign before it goes live. I’ve lost a few posts like that. Joe Blanton two years ago. Even Matt Holliday last year. (I was able to repurpose that into a thoughts post though.)

My biggest regret this season was waiting too long to turn the “the Yankees need to stop giving Tyler Clippard high-leverage innings before he starts blowing games” topic on my list into an actual post. It was on my list for weeks. Since the middle of April. The warning signs were all there. I just never wrote it up. Then bam, Clippard was giving up dingers and blowing games left and right. It would have been prescient. But I waited too long.

* * *

Clippard started the 2017 season well enough. He took a 1.64 ERA (3.07 FIP) into June and his 32.6% strikeout rate was quite strong. Opponents were hitting .156/.253/.247 against him. Clippard did blow two games in those two months, most notably turning a 5-4 lead into a 6-5 loss to the Orioles on April 7th, in the fourth game of the season, when Seth Smith took him yard.

Blowing two games in two months isn’t the end of the world. That’s about what I’d expect pretty much any reliever to do. Everyone has an off night now and then. Clippard was the third man in the bullpen behind Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances, and when Chapman went on the disabled list with a shoulder problem in mid-May, Clippard took over eighth inning duty while Betances closed. Not ideal, but it could be worse, right?

That 1.64 ERA and .156/.253/.247 batting line hid a troubling trend, however. Clippard’s infield pop-ups were continuing to turn into fly balls. He’s always been an extreme weak pop-up pitcher. Allowing batters to hit the ball in the air isn’t the problem when it barely leaves the infield. At his best, Clippard’s infield pop-up rate was near 20%. Just last season it was 25.3%. There’s a reason he has a career .239 BABIP. All those pop-ups are easy outs.

In April and May this season, Clippard’s pop-up rate was 13.6%, down from 25.3% last year and 18.5% from 2013-16. Fewer pop-ups and the same number of ground balls equals more legitimate fly balls and line drives. And, when combined with his lowest soft contact rate (20.0%) in years, the result was a lot of deep fly balls. In April and May, they were going for outs. That would not continue forever in the Year of the Home Run.

* * *

Clippard’s troubles started almost immediately in June. In his second outing of the month, he allowed a game-losing eighth inning home run to Josh Donaldson in Toronto. It was as annoying as it was predictable. Annoyingly predictable.

That loss, I felt, was on Joe Girardi more than Clippard. Yeah, Clippard gave up the homer, but he shouldn’t have even been in that situation in the first place. He’s an extreme fly ball pitcher and the Blue Jays were sending Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Kendrys Morales to the plate in the eighth inning of a tie game. Basically their three best home run hitters. Betances, who was still in his first half FU mode at the time, should’ve been in the game, but closers are for closin’.

Anyway, Clippard blew another game a week later, that one against the Angels. Two days after that he allowed a run against the Athletics. What came next was the coup de grace. The end of Clippard’s time as a high-leverage reliever. Or even a medium leverage reliever. Across three appearances from June 20th through June 24th, Clippard did this: 1.1 IP, 8 H, 9 R, 9 ER, 2 BB, 1 K, 2 HR. Three runs, one out against the Angels on June 20th. Two runs, no outs against the Angels on June 21st. Four runs, three outs against the Rangers on June 24th.

Clippard going into that three-game stretch: 2.22 ERA and a .160/.257/.300 opponent’s line in 28.1 innings. Clippard coming out of that three-game stretch: 4.85 ERA and a .214/.307/.446 opponent’s line in 29.2 innings. It went south quick. It wasn’t just all the hard contact either. Clippard had nothing to put hitters away. His trademark changeup had become a batting practice fastball. Walks went up and swings and misses went down.

tyler-clippard-walks-and-whiffs

Clippard allowed four runs in 1.2 innings against the Brewers on July 7th, in a game Girardi just let him wear it in a mop-up situation. He threw two scoreless innings after the All-Star break, one with the Yankees down one in the eighth inning and one with the Yankees up three in the seventh. Girardi needed to use Clippard in the seventh that day because it was the first game of a doubleheader and the Yankees and Red Sox played 16 innings the day before. The bullpen was running on fumes. Following that outing, Clippard was sitting on a 4.95 ERA (5.00 FIP) in 36.1 innings.

* * *

For various reasons, the super bullpen the Yankees are always trying to build had not come to fruition. Chapman was struggling, Betances started walking everyone at midseason, Jonathan Holder couldn’t seize a job, and Clippard had proven unreliable. Fortunately Chad Green stepped up and prevented the relief corps from being a total disaster, but yeah, the bullpen was a bit of a sore spot at midseason. Help was needed.

On July 19th, two weeks before the trade deadline, the Yankees sought to strengthen their bullpen by acquiring two pitchers who were among the top ten relievers in baseball up to that point: David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle. Two former Yankees. Well, former Yankees prospect in Kahnle’s case. The Yankees got the White Sox to throw Todd Frazier in as well. Former first round Blake Rutherford was the headliner going to Chicago.

Also included in that trade was Clippard. He was included to offset salary and nothing more. The rebuilding White Sox weren’t thinking Clippard could put them over the top and into the postseason. They took him on to offset salary, and their hope was he’d perform better in their uniform, and they could flip him later. And you know what? That’s exactly what happened.

In three weeks and change with the ChiSox, Clippard pitched to a 1.80 ERA (2.26 FIP) in ten innings. How about that? Chicago cashed him in as a trade chip and sent him to the Astros for, well, cash. If you’re a hard tanking team, not having to pay Clippard is better than having to pay Clippard. And with Houston, Clippard pitched to a 6.43 ERA (5.09 FIP) in 14 innings. He was not on their postseason roster in any round. Clippard’s season in a nutshell:

tyler-clippard-era-fip

Good enough early on, a total disaster in the middle, a dead cat bounce with the White Sox, and more ugliness at the end. Clippard finished the 2017 season with a 4.77 ERA (4.57 FIP) in 60.1 innings. And with a World Series ring! Once a champ, always a champ. Good for Clippard.

* * *

When the Yankees first traded Clippard away all those years ago, they did so thinking they’d upgraded their bullpen by acquiring Jonathan Albaladejo. That didn’t work out so well. It didn’t work out at all. When they reacquired Clippard last year, they did so to maintain some semblance of respectability after selling at the trade deadline. And by and large, it worked. Clippard was basically free and and he pitched well enough last year.

This year things completely fell apart for Clippard, which was the direction things had been trending for a few years now. The outs weren’t as easy to get as they were in his prime, the ball was leaving the yard a little more often, and all those weak pop-ups were becoming few and far between. The second time the Yankees traded Clippard away, they did it for a clear bullpen upgrade. Alas, he was only a throw-in in the trade, not the centerpiece. The Yankees had to trade away Rutherford, last year’s first rounder, partly because Clippard imploded.

There is no 2018 outlook for Clippard because the Yankees aren’t going to bring him back. I mean, I suppose they could since there is an open bullpen spot, but nah. That ship has sailed. It’s not fair to pin not winning the AL East on him, but damn, the Yankees fell short by two games and Clippard was charged with five blown saves (in the seventh and eighth innings) and took five losses in his half-season with the Yankees. He did plenty of damage before being traded away.

The Other Excellent Rookie [2017 Season Review]

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

The Yankees headed into Spring Training with the fifth starter role entirely up in the air (that’s true of the fourth spot, as well, but now is not the time to discuss how awesome it was that Luis Severino went from “competing for a spot” to “finalist for the Cy Young Award”). Brian Cashman specifically mentioned that Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell, Adam Warren, and Jordan Montgomery were in the mix, and the first four came into the season with at least five big league starts under their belt. Montgomery was the youngest and the least experienced, but it seemed likely he’d get the call eventually. Instead, he latched onto that slot in the rotation, and never let go.

An Impressive Spring Training

Cashman and Co. were not lying when they said that the fifth starter’s role was very much up for grabs, and Montgomery seized the opportunity. He appeared in six games, starting two, and pitched to the following line: 19.2 IP, 16 H, 3 BB, 17 K, 1.2 GB/FB, 3.20 ERA. Green had a much shinier 1.50 ERA, but Montgomery was trusted to throw more innings, and had much better peripherals – and so the job was his.

There were, of course, two factors that gave Montgomery something of an edge; or, at the very least, helped to make up whatever ground he would’ve lost by being a rookie. The first is that Cessa, Green, Mitchell, and Warren all had experience pitching out of the bullpen, and profiled better in that role, given their stuff. And the second is rather simple – he’s a southpaw. When your home ballpark is Yankee Stadium, the more left-handed starters you can muster, the better. A strong Spring Training, a track record of success in the high minors, left-handedness, and the lack of a high-end reliever profile all worked together to push Montgomery into the rotation.

Arriving A Bit Earlier Than Expected

The Yankees were slated to use Montgomery for the first time on April 16, as that was the first time that a fifth starter was necessary. Plans changed, as they often do, and they elected to give CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka an extra day of rest by starting Montgomery on April 12. It’s a relatively minor difference, to be sure – but I’m not sure that they expected Montgomery to be there for the long-haul from day one(-ish).

Montgomery turned in a solid start in his major league debut against the Rays, going 4.2 IP and allowing 5 hits, 2 earned runs, and 2 walks, while striking out 7. You can read more about that start in Mike’s game recap, but the key takeaway was that Montgomery did everything the team could have reasonably expected of him, and looked good in doing so. Or, phrased differently, he pitched well-enough to make that fifth starter’s spot his to lose.

A Consistent Force At The Back Of The Rotation

Montgomery stuck in the Yankees rotation for the rest of the season, with a small asterisk. He was sent down to Triple-A in the dog days of Summer to mitigate his workload; he made one three-inning start there, on August 24, and was back in the show six days later. That jaunt to the minors was sandwiched in the midst of his worst stretch of the season, where he seemingly hit the rookie wall. Montgomery went 17 innings over four starts, allowing 18 hits, 12 earned runs (6.35 ERA), 10 walks, and five home runs. It wasn’t pretty.

Up to that point, Montgomery had made 22 starts, pitching to the following line: 121 IP, 110 H, 38 BB, 115 K, 3.94 ERA, 3.94 FIP. Those ERA and FIP numbers may not look all that impressive, but his 89 ERA- and 87 FIP- show that both were comfortably above-average. His 22.8% strikeout rate and 7.5% walk rate were above-average, as well.

And he rebounded nicely after his rough patch, too. He closed out the season with three strong starts, totaling 17.1 IP, 12 H, 3 BB, 14 K, 0 HR, and a 1.04 ERA. It was a great end to a very good season, and a comforting sign that he had straightened himself out a bit.

Surprisingly, Montgomery’s stuff didn’t really sag as the season progressed:

brooksbaseball-chart

All five of his pitches stayed within a range of +/- a MPH on the season as a whole, excepting October – which may simply be an outlier, given that it was just one start. That is likely a product of Montgomery being accustomed to heavier workloads in the minors, as he only took a jump of 24 IP from 2016 to 2017; and it’s a good sign.

Trusting His Stuff

Montgomery’s pitch selection was somewhat inconsistent throughout the season, and it will bear watching going forward. I first noticed this back in May, when he followed-up the worst start of the season with the best (to that point), at least. It essentially boiled down to slider usage – he threw 11 the first time around, and 29 the next time out, and it was unhittable. For better or worse, though, his usage rate on all of his pitches was all over the place:

brooksbaseball-chart-1

The best explanation for this may simply be that he didn’t like to use his slider and curveball in the same game, as the usage of those pitches is close to a mirror image. He had great success with both pitches, though, so being able to deploy both in the same outing with confidence could pay dividends.

The Best Rookie Pitcher In Baseball

Put all of that together, and Montgomery was at the top of the charts for rookie pitchers, with the following overall line – 155.1 IP, 22.2 K%, 7.9 BB%, 88 ERA-, 2.7 fWAR, 2.9 bWAR. He led all rookie pitchers in both fWAR and bWAR, and finished fourth in innings pitched. An argument can even be made that he was the best non-Aaron Judge rookie in the American League, given that he was tied with Matt Chapman for second in fWAR, and didn’t derive a great deal of his value from a half-season’s worth of defensive metrics.

Regardless, that’s a hell of a rookie season from someone that may’ve been fourth or fifth on the pre-spring depth chart for the fifth starter’s slot.

2018 Outlook

Montgomery has more than earned a spot in the Yankees rotation and, barring some unforeseen blockbuster deal, I don’t see him anywhere else in 2018.