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 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.

Aaron Judge unanimously named 2017 AL Rookie of the Year

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

In the least surprising news ever, Aaron Judge was named the 2017 American League Rookie of the Year tonight. It was unanimous. Judge received all 30 first place votes. Andrew Benintendi finished second and Trey Mancini finished third. The full voting results are available at the BBWAA’s site.

“It means everything. It’s quite an honor,” said Judge after the announcement. “It’s an honor and a privilege. I’m just one piece in an organization. The impact my teammates, family, and friends have had on me this year have been huge. I can’t thank them enough.”

Judge is the first Yankee to be named Rookie of the Year since Derek Jeter in 1996, and he’s the ninth Yankee to win the award overall. Judge joins Jeter, Dave Righetti (1981), Thurman Munson (1970), Stan Bahnsen (1968), Tom Tresh (1962), Tony Kubek (1957), Bob Grim (1954), and Gil McDougald (1951). Only the Dodgers have more Rookie of the Year winners than the Yankees.

Overall, Judge authored a .284/.422/.627 (173 wRC+) batting line this season, and he set new rookie records in home runs (52) and walks (127) and, yes, strikeouts (208). His +8.2 fWAR led all players in 2017. Rookies and veterans, position players and pitchers. That’s why Judge is also a finalist for the AL MVP award. That’ll be announced later this week.

I was a big Judge fan throughout his time in the minors, even when others jumped off the bandwagon following his strikeout filled MLB debut last year. Never in a million years did I expect a season like this though. Judge was historically great for a rookie and one of the best players in the game. What a remarkable season. The Rookie of the Year award is very well deserved.

Elsewhere in Rookie of the Year news, Jordan Montgomery finished sixth in the voting and received one second place and one third place vote. Montgomery threw 155.1 innings with a 3.88 ERA (4.07 FIP) this season, and his +2.7 fWAR led all rookie pitchers. Chad Green did not receive any Rookie of the Year votes because he wasn’t rookie eligible. He accrued too much service time last year.

Judge and Montgomery are the first set of Yankees teammates to receive Rookie of the Year votes in the same season since Dellin Betances and Masahiro Tanaka in 2014. Betances finished third in the voting and Tanaka finished fifth. Congrats to both Judge and Montgomery. They had tremendous seasons and are big parts of the future.

After deep playoff run, the Yankees will again have to monitor pitcher workloads in 2018

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

At some point in the coming days, we’ll find out whether the Yankees need to add one starting pitcher this offseason, or two. The deadline for Masahiro Tanaka to opt-out of his contract is Saturday, and if he opts out, the Yankees will need to replace Tanaka and CC Sabathia. If he doesn’t opt out, the Yankees will only have to replace Sabathia. And they very well could replace Sabathia with Sabathia. Re-signing him seems like a definite possibility.

As things stand right now, the only thing we know for sure about the 2018 rotation is that it will include Luis Severino, Sonny Gray, and Jordan Montgomery. My guess is both Chad Green and Adam Warren will come to Spring Training stretched out as starters, though the smart money is on both going back to the bullpen. Luis Cessa and Domingo German will be around as depth, plus Chance Adams and maybe Justus Sheffield will debut at some point in 2018 as well.

This year the Yankees had to monitor the workloads of all their starting pitchers for different reasons. Severino and Montgomery are young pitchers gradually increasing their workloads. The Yankees have handled Tanaka with kid gloves since his 2014 elbow injury. Sabathia’s knee is an ongoing concern. Gray has had some injury problems in recent years as well, so giving him extra rest from time to time was a priority.

And, as things stand now, the Yankees are again going to have to monitor the workloads of their starters next season thanks to their deep postseason run. Severino and Montgomery threw more innings this season than ever before. By a lot too.

  • Severino: 209.1 total innings (previous career high: 161.2 innings in 2015)
  • Montgomery: 163.1 total innings (previous career high: 139.1 innings in 2016)

The Yankees were so concerned about Montgomery’s workload — big league innings are not the same as minor league innings because there’s more stress and intensity involved — that they went out and added Jaime Garcia so they could send Montgomery to Triple-A to control his innings there. Severino seemed to tire out a bit in the postseason. I thought he was noticeably fatigued in the fourth inning of ALCS Game Six.

This isn’t just about raw innings totals though. Montgomery and especially Severino pitched deeper into the year than ever before. The Yankees were one game away from the World Series! That means a shorter offseason recover. And this applies to the veterans too. Tanaka and Sabathia, should they come back, as well as Gray will miss out on a few extra weeks to rest this winter because of the postseason run.

The whole World Series hangover phenomenon is not new. Pitchers who pitch deep into the postseason and have shorter offseasons than usual have been coming back the next year and struggling for a long time now. That’s part of what made Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera so great. Those guys played seven-month seasons, not six-month seasons, because the Yankees were always in the playoffs. Yet they never broke down physically.

As much as we’d like them to turn out that way, the Yankees can’t proceed under the assumption Severino and Montgomery are essentially unbreakable like Pettitte and Rivera. This year they had to be careful with their workloads eclipsing their previous career highs. Next year they’ll have to worry about any lingering effects from those big workloads this year, and well as the shorter offseason that comes with going to Game Seven of the ALCS.

The Yankees know this, of course. Remember the Javy Vazquez trade? The second one? The Yankees made that trade because Sabathia, Pettitte, and A.J. Burnett worked hard in 2009 and pitched into November en route to the World Series championship. The Yankees wanted an innings eater to help lighten the load on the other guys. So they went out and got Vazquez, who at the time had just thrown 190+ innings for the tenth straight season to bolster the back of the rotation.

Now, the Vazquez trade didn’t work out in 2010. He stunk. But the idea was sound. Get another innings eater for the back of the rotation so it’s easier to pull Sabathia, Pettitte, and Burnett a little earlier than usual without overtaxing the bullpen following their long 2009 seasons. That’s where the Yankees are now. Their starters just threw a ton of innings and pitched deep into October, and there might be a carryover effect in 2018.

Perhaps the need to add rotation depth this winter isn’t as great as it was following 2009. The farm system is much richer now. Cessa, German, Adams, and Caleb Smith are basically MLB ready. Back in 2009, their best MLB ready pitching prospects were, uh, Ivan Nova? Zach McAllister? Good big leaguers! But the farm system was much thinner, and the Yankees didn’t have an Adams waiting, that top pitching prospect, or a Sheffield not far behind.

I’ve always been a pitching depth guy. Bring in as many viable starters as possible and don’t worry about where they all fit, because odds are you’ll need all of them at some point anyway. If the Yankees re-sign Sabathia, retain Tanaka, and bring in a veterans innings dude who pushes Montgomery to Triple-A to start 2018, I wouldn’t lose any sleep. Montgomery would be back in MLB before you know it. The long season and big workloads are something the Yankees have to be cognizant of next year, and that could mean making another Vazquez-esque trade.

Six under-the-radar decisions that helped get the Yankees back to the postseason

Sir Didi. (Adam Hunger/Getty)
Sir Didi. (Adam Hunger/Getty)

In what was supposed to be a rebuilding transition season, the Yankees won 91 games and will play in the AL Wild Card Game tomorrow night. They remained in the hunt for the AL East title right up until the final weekend too. That’s pretty cool. Can’t say I saw this coming. This has been a fun six months, hasn’t it? Couldn’t have asked for a more enjoyable season.

Getting to the postseason and possibly maybe hopefully winning the World Series is the result of many, literally hundreds of decisions over a period of several seasons. It doesn’t happen quick. Some of the decisions that got the Yankees back to the postseason this year are obvious. Draft Aaron Judge with the 32nd pick in 2013 instead of literally anyone else. Trade for Sonny Gray and David Robertson. Sign CC Sabathia. Those are the obvious moves.

Many times it’s the not-so-obvious decisions, the multitude of easy-to-look decisions that are the difference between contending and just being okay. Don’t think much of that lightly regarded prospect thrown into a trade? Well sometimes that guy turns into Chad Green. Those are the moves and decisions that separate the contenders from the pretenders. Here are six of those not-so-obvious decisions that played a role in getting the Yankees back to the postseason.

Giving Denbo the keys to the farm system

The Yankees were never going to get back to being a perennial contender without developing players from within. You can’t build a winner through free agency anymore. Baseball has changed. And aside from a Brett Gardner here and a Dellin Betances there, the Yankees hadn’t developed an impact player since Robinson Cano as recently as two years ago. Things had to change and they did change.

Four years ago Hal Steinbrenner ordered what was essentially an audit of the farm system. The Yankees weren’t producing players and the owner wanted to know why. Hal’s evaluation of the system led to substantial changes. Coaches and player development personnel were replaced, and the minor league complex in Tampa was renovated. The status quo was not working so the Yankees changed the way they went about developing players.

The single biggest change was the (forced) retirement of longtime vice president of baseball operations Mark Newman, who’d been running the farm system for 15 years. Brian Cashman tabbed Gary Denbo, who has done basically everything there is to do in baseball throughout his career, to replace Newman, and the difference has been staggering. The Yankees are not just producing MLB players, they’re producing stars.

How much credit does Denbo deserve for the farm system turnaround? It’s hard to say, exactly. Denbo did overhaul the minor league coaching staffs — even the beloved Tony Franklin, Double-A Trenton’s longtime manager, was moved into another role — and start Captain’s Camp, among many other things. The farm system went from frustratingly unproductive to pumping out quality big league players under his watch. More than the Yankees can roster, really.

I never thought the Yankees had a problem acquiring talent (aside from the Cito Culver and Dante Bichette Jr. picks). They had talent. But that talent was not developing into MLB players. That has changed since Denbo took over, and hey, maybe it’s all one giant coincidence. I don’t think that’s the case though. Denbo replacing Newman barely registered as a blip on the radar at the time, but in the grand scheme of things, it may have been the team’s most impactful move of the last five or six years.

Letting Severino pitch in relief

Sevy. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)
Sevy. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)

The 2016 season couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start for Luis Severino. Rather than emerge as a homegrown ace, the then-22-year-old struggled big time early in the season and eventually went down with a triceps injury. He threw 35 innings with a 7.46 ERA (5.52 FIP) in seven starts before the injury, then once he got healthy, the Yankees sent him down to Triple-A Scranton.

In 13 games with the RailRiders, Severino had a 3.49 ERA (2.60 FIP) in 77.1 innings, and he was sent down for the express purpose of improving his command and improving his changeup. The Yankees did bring Severino back to the big leagues eventually, but not as a starter. As a reliever. In eleven relief appearances he threw 23.1 innings with a 0.39 ERA (2.29 FIP) and was overwhelmingly dominant. Naturally, the calls to keep Severino in the bullpen came, but the Yankees knew better and moved him back into the rotation this year.

This season Severino emerged as that homegrown ace and I don’t think that happens without his bullpen stint last season. While working in relief Severino learned how to get MLB hitters out, learned to trust his overpowering stuff, and built confidence, and it carried over this year. He looks like a reliever pitching as a starter this season. He has that same attack attack attack mentality and a better idea of how to get outs.

Development is rarely linear. So many players experience ups and downs along the way, and last season was a down year for Severino. It wasn’t a lost year though. You hope young players learn something when they struggle and Severino absolutely did. He doesn’t become the pitcher he is today without going through everything he went through last year. I know we’re all still scarred from the Joba Rules and all that, but in this case, a stint in the bullpen turned into a major positive for Severino and the Yankees.

Beltran picks the Astros

Over the winter the Yankees had a clear opening for a veteran middle of the order bat. Someone to support the youngsters and take all those designated hitter at-bats. The Yankees wanted to bring Carlos Beltran back for that role. He was Plan A. Instead, Beltran decided to take a one-year contract worth $16M with the Astros.

“They really made an offer early, faster than any other team,” said Beltran to Brian McTaggart after signing with Houston. “At the same time, I took a look at the roster, and having an opportunity to play against them last year with the Rangers, this team is very, very close to winning and winning for a long time. The fact they were aggressive and went out there and really showed big-time interest, it wasn’t that difficult to make to make a decision.”

With Beltran off the board, the Yankees shifted gears and turned their attention to Matt Holliday, the other big name veteran bat who could be had a one-year contract. The Yankees have Holliday a one-year deal worth $13M four days after Beltran signed with the Astros, and, well:

  • Holliday: .231/.316/.432 (97 wRC+) and 19 homers
  • Beltran: .231/.283/.383 (76 wRC+) and 14 homers

Holliday has crashed hard in the second half, hard enough that it’s fair to wonder whether he belongs on the postseason roster, but his first half was incredible. He hit .262/.366/.511 (132 wRC+) with 15 homers in 68 games before the All-Star break. Beltran’s best 68-game stretch this season was a .246/.301/.442 line (96 wRC+) with eleven homers from May 3rd through August 6th. Yeah.

Between Holliday’s first half production and his reported impact on Judge and other young players, the Yankees are pretty fortunate Beltran decided to return to Houston. They wound up with a slightly cheaper player who was more productive on the field and also an asset in the clubhouse (which Beltran certainly is as well).

Diamondbacks put their faith in Ahmed and Owings

Nearly three years ago, then-D’Backs general manager Dave Stewart decided he was going to dip into his team’s shortstop depth to bolster their rotation. The club had three young shortstops, none older than 24, so there was some surplus. Arizona could trade one young shortstop and still have two others on the roster. And that’s exactly what they did. The shortstops they kept: Nick Ahmed and Chris Owings. The shortstop they traded: Didi Gregorius.

  • Gregorius from 2015-17: .276/.313/.432 (98 wRC+) and +9.6 WAR
  • Ahmed from 2015-17: .228/.276/.351 (60 wRC+) and +1.9 WAR
  • Owings from: 2015-17: .255/.291/.387 (72 wRC+) and -0.5 WAR

To be fair, the D’Backs acquired Robbie Ray in the Gregorius trade, and Ray is pretty damn awesome. He threw 162 innings with a 2.89 ERA (3.72 FIP) and 32.8% strikeouts this season, and went to the All-Star Game. The trade worked out for them from the “get a young starter” perspective. The Yankees did not have a young starter to trade with the D’Backs directly, which is how the Tigers got involved. Then-Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski loved Shane Greene and served as an intermediary.

Gregorius is now a highly productive member of the Yankees because the D’Backs considered him expendable. That’s why he’s wearing pinstripes. They liked Owings and Ahmed more and identified them as their best chance to develop a shortstop of the future. “Didi has been one of the most talked-about players (in trades) for us. Looking at the possibilities for things we could do, it really came down to eventually, ‘How can we fill a need?'” said Stewart to Nick Piecoro after the trade. The D’Backs got their starter, so credit to them. That decision helped get the Yankees to where they are today.

Not making the easy move for the fifth starter’s spot

Monty. (Jamie Squire/Getty)
Monty. (Jamie Squire/Getty)

When Spring Training started, the Yankees had two open rotation spots. As it turned out, one was earmarked for Severino — didn’t I say that all offseason long? I did — leaving the fifth spot up to a good ol’ Grapefruit League competition. The fifth starter candidates: Green, Luis Cessa, Bryan Mitchell, and supposedly Adam Warren, though I never bought Warren as a rotation candidate. That group was the baseball equivalent of a shrug emoji.

Ultimately, none of the fifth starter candidates won the job. Jordan Montgomery shocked the world in camp, outpitched everyone, and won the job. The Yankees could’ve very easily gone with Cessa or Green or Mitchell, all of whom were already on the 40-man roster and had MLB experience, but no, they went with Montgomery. Johnny Barbato was the 40-man roster sacrificial lamb and Montgomery was the fifth starter.

What was expected to be a revolving door of fifth starters — when is it ever not a revolving door? — was instead steady and reliable production from Montgomery, especially in the first half. He finished the regular season with a 3.88 ERA (4.06 FIP) in 155.1 innings after pitching to a 3.65 ERA (4.05 FIP) in 91.1 first half innings. Montgomery led all rookie pitchers with +2.8 fWAR, all after coming into the season as a rotation afterthought.

There’s a pretty good chance Montgomery will not even be on the postseason roster, but make no mistake, he played a vital role in getting the Yankees back to October. He earned his spot in Spring Training and, truth be told, the only reason he had to be sent to Triple-A in the second half was to control his workload. Montgomery gave the Yankees what they’ve been seeking for years: a no nonsense starter to solidify the back of the rotation.

Going with Torreyes on the bench

It wasn’t that long ago that Rob Refsnyder was a pretty big deal around these parts. He put up very good numbers in the minors, and for the first few years of the post-Cano era, the Yankees had a revolving door at second base. The scouting reports said Refsnyder’s defense stunk, we all knew that, but wouldn’t the offense make up for it? After all, the Yankees were running guys like Brian Roberts and Stephen Drew out there.

The Yankees never believed in Refsnyder as much as the fans, so much so that when a bench spot was open last spring, they didn’t take him north. Refsnyder had a decent enough camp and was learning third base to increase his versatility. Instead, the Yankees decided to go with Ronald Torreyes, who had been in four different organizations in the previous ten months. They went with Torreyes because he could do what Refsnyder couldn’t: catch the ball.

Turns out, Torreyes had more to offer offensively as well. Refsnyder has never hit much in his various MLB stints — he authored a .170/.247/.216 (22 wRC+) batting line with the Yankees and Blue Jays this year — and he still doesn’t have a position. Torreyes, meanwhile, has settled in as a reliable utility infielder, one who filled in at shortstop and second base while Gregorius and Castro were injured earlier this year.

  • Torreyes while Didi was on DL: .308/.308/.431 in 19 games
  • Torreyes while Castro was on DL (two stints): .302/.321/.389 in 38 games

Does he draw walks? No. Does he hit for power? No. Does he even steal bases? No, not really (two all season). What Torreyes does do it get the bat on the ball (12.8%), and that prevents him from falling into deep and prolonged slumps. He’s a .300 hitter (well, .292 to be exact) and it is an empty .300, but .300 is .300, and we’re talking about a bench player. A bench player who can play all over the infield and start for a few weeks at a time if necessary.

Also, let’s not forget the off-the-field value Torreyes brings to the table. He’s a high-energy player who is universally beloved in the clubhouse. He’s a Grade-A glue guy and that is absolutely important. It’s a long season, man. Teams need players who can keep everyone loose and make it fun to go to the ballpark. Torreyes does that. He’s a solid utility player on the field and a great clubhouse guy behind the scenes.

Last spring Refsnyder was the trendy pick for that bench spot. He’d done all he needed to do in the minors to earn a chance, at least offensively and at least in the eyes of the fans, and it seemed like he would get the call. Instead, the Yankees went with the relatively unknown Torreyes, and his more functional skill set. This season he started for long stretches of time while Gregorius and Castro were out, and his production during those stints as a starter helped get the Yankees back to October.

Yankeemetrics: Rounding third, heading home (Sept. 25-28)

(New York Post)
(New York Post)

The Dinger King
The Yankees returned to the Bronx on Monday and kicked off the final week of the season with a sweet 11-3 rout of the Royals. They improved to 17-0 in games decided by at least eight runs, a typical blowout for this year’s club. The Yankees have the most wins by that margin in the majors, and are the only team that hasn’t suffered a loss by eight or more runs.

Aaron Judge stole the statistical spotlight as he enjoyed a record-breaking day at the Stadium. He clubbed his 49th and 50th homers of the season, not only becoming MLB’s all-time rookie home run king, but also etching his name alongside a bunch of franchise legends and some of baseball’s most iconic players. Let’s recap a few of his other incredible feats:

  • Fifth player in franchise history to hit 50-plus homers, a group that includes A-Rod (2007), Roger Maris (1961), Mickey Mantle (twice) and Babe Ruth (four times)
  • Joined Mantle (1956) and Ruth (1920) as the only Yankees with seven multi-homer games in a season at age 25 or younger
  • With his 12th and 13th homers in September, he became the youngest Yankee to go deep 13 times in a calendar month since a 25-year-old Maris had 14 in June 1960.
  • Coming off his two-homer effort on Sunday, Judge became the first rookie in franchise history with back-to-back multi-homer games
  • He also got his 120th walk, making him just the second player in major-league history to hit 50 homers and walk 120 times in a season before the age of 26. The other? That Ruth dude in 1920.
(AP)
(AP)

While Judge hogged the headlines, a couple other Baby Bombers helped turn this game into a rout with both Greg Bird and Gary Sanchez adding to their 2017 homer totals. It was the first time in the majors that Judge, Sanchez and Bird each went yard in the same game.

And let’s not forget about the old guy on the mound, CC “The Stopper” Sabathia. After cruising through six scoreless innings, he coughed up a couple homers in the seventh but still finished with a win and a bare-minimum quality start. More impressively, he’s now 9-0 with a 1.71 ERA in 11 games following a Yankee loss, the best record and lowest ERA of any MLB pitcher with at least seven such starts this season.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Another win, another clinching
After beating the Rays on Tuesday, the Yankees locked down homefield advantage for the Wild Card game next week. Aaron Hicks was activated from the disabled list in the morning, inserted into the starting lineup and made an immediate impact with a spectacular grand-slam-saving catch in the first inning. Even Hicks was amazed by the jaw-dropping home run robbery:

(MLB.com)
(MLB.com)

Aaron Judge didn’t homer but still contributed with an RBI double and scored his 125th run of the season. He joined Ted Williams (1939) and Joe DiMaggio (1936) as the only players in MLB history with at least 100 RBIs and 125 runs in their rookie campaigns.

Gary Sanchez also reached a nice round number, notching his 90th RBI of the year on a bloop single in the eighth. He’s the youngest American League catcher (primary position) to drive in at least 90 runs in a season since a 24-year-old Yogi Berra in 1949.

On the mound, Jordan Montgomery delivered his second straight gem, holding the Rays to one run over six solid innings. After allowing seven homers in his first eight home starts, he’s kept the ball in the park in each of his last six home starts dating back to July. How impressive that? The only Yankee with a longer single-season streak of homerless starts at the current Yankee Stadium is CC Sabathia in 2011. And through Wednesday, he was the only pitcher in the majors that had pitched at least 30 innings at home since the All-Star break and hadn’t given up a longball in his own stadium.

(USA Today)
(USA Today)

#TooManyHomers
A late-September Home Run Derby broke out in the Bronx on Wednesday as the Yankees enjoyed a 6-1 win backed by three homers and another masterful performance by Luis Severino. It improved their record to 18-7 this month, their most September wins since they went 19-9 in 2009 en route to … World Series title No. 27.

Amidst the offensive fireworks, the star of the game was the team’s 23-year-old ace. Severino rebounded from a poor start against the Twins last week to produce another typical dominant outing – nine strikeouts and one run allowed in six sharp innings – in the final performance of his historic 2017 campaign.

It was the 16th time this year he surrendered no more than one run, the most such starts in the majors, and the most by any Yankee since Mike Mussina also had 16 in 2001. He’s also youngest AL pitcher with 16 starts of one run or fewer in a season since Vida Blue in 1971, and the youngest right-hander in either league to reach that mark since a 21-year-old Dwight Gooden in 1985.

The nine strikeouts gave him 230, matching CC Sabathia (2011) for the third-highest single-season total in franchise history; the two guys ahead of him are Ron Guidry (248 in 1978) and Hall-of-Famer Jack Chesbro (239 in 1904). Oh, and Chesbro’s 1904 season is mind-boggling in the context of today’s pitching environment: he threw 454 innings while setting modern-era records in games started (51), wins (41) and complete games (48)!

Severino also lowered his ERA to 2.98, becoming the first Yankee to qualify for the ERA title with a sub-3.00 ERA since David Cone and Andy Pettitte in 1997, and the youngest to do it since Dave Righetti in 1981. Combined with his 230 strikeouts, and Sevvy is in some pretty elite company:

The last American League pitcher with 230 or more strikeouts and an ERA below 3.00 in his age-23 season or younger was Roger Clemens in 1986, the year he captured his first Cy Young award and the league MVP.

(AP)
(AP)

#NotEnoughHomers
The Yankees road to October hit a speedbump with a deflating 9-6 loss in the series finale. Let’s recap this rollercoaster-like game with a Yankeemetrics-style of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

The Ugly
Handed a 4-1 lead, Sonny Gray imploded in the fifth inning, surrendering five runs in the frame (six overall) before getting pulled with two outs. It was definitely not the way he wanted to cap off his regular season in the Bronx. Following the disaster outing, his final three starts at Yankee Stadium look like this: 15 2/3 innings, 15 runs, 17 hits, six homers.

The Bad:
Normally a dinger party equals a Yankee win, but somehow the Bronx Bombers managed to snatch defeat from a near-certain victory. Prior to Thursday, they were 13-0 when hitting at least four homers in a game this season, the second-best record in MLB. The last game they lost despite going deep four times was August 22, 2016 at Seattle, and their last such defeat at Yankee Stadium was more than two years ago on June 23, 2015 versus the Phillies.

The Good:
The offense got off to a fast start when Brett Gardner and Aaron Judge opened the game with back-to-back homers, the first Yankee duo to do that since Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter on April 16, 2012 against the Twins. Greg Bird invited himself to the power party with a fourth-inning solo blast, his eighth homer and 23rd RBI in 26 games since coming off the DL. By the way, that’s a 162-game pace of 49 homers and 143 RBIs.

And with his first-inning blast, Judge continued his destruction of the record books:

  • 32nd longball at The Stadium this year, tying Babe Ruth — who hit 32 at the Polo Grounds in 1921 — for the most homers hit at home in a season in franchise history.
  • 14th homer this month, the first Yankee to go deep 14 times in September since Ruth set the major-league record for September home runs with 17 in 1927.
  • The only other right-handed batters to wear pinstripes and hit 14 homers in any calendar month were A-Rod (April 2007) and Joe DiMaggio (twice).
  • 8th straight game with extra-base hit, the longest streak by Yankee rookie in the last 100 years

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.