Trade For…A Starter!

Yesterday, I outlined five possible ways for the Yankees to improve their current club. Today, I start with the starting pitching.

The case for upgrading: The Yankees rank 22nd in baseball in terms of starter ERA. They rank 23rd in terms of innings pitched by starters.

The case against upgrading: Starting pitching is the most expensive commodity in baseball. Ivan Nova has just returned and may stabilize the rotation. Yankees may be too stubborn to replace their weakest starter (Sabathia) anyway.

To me the key question to upgrading the rotation is- who are you pulling out of it if you make a trade? If the answer is anyone besides Sabathia, I am really not interested. I have made the case against Sabathia a few times over the past few weeks, let me now make a case that the other four starters should stay in the rotation.

I think Tanaka and Pineda have shown enough potential that nobody would make a serious argument that they should be removed from the rotation if Sabathia stays. While Nova may or may not have, he just got back, so let’s look closer at Eovaldi. He has been maddeningly inconsistent, but the stuff is fantastic, and his FIP is 3.76- almost a run below Sabathia’s. He is inexpensive and under team control until after 2017. The Yankees have every reason to keep trying to develop him and at age 25, he is more than young enough to improve.

So, while I hope the Yankees do try to improve their rotation, I will only be happy if they do so at the expense of Sabathia. CC was great, but he appears done, and the money invested in his contract is a sunk cost. If the go this route, I hope they realize that.

Halfway Home

The Yankees played their 82nd game today which means they are in the second half of their regular season schedule. Only the most optimistic fans could have expected them to have a better first half than they did, 44 wins against 37 losses and first place in the AL East. And, that depute losing their best starter, closer, center fielder, and other players, for significant stretches of the season. Clearly, the Yankees are playoff contenders. The problem is, every team in the American League is too. Oakland, a league worst 38-44, is only six-games out of a wild card spot.

An optimist would look at the Yankees as currently constructed and say that they are going to get two huge boosts in the next week with the return of Andrew Miller and Jacoby Ellsbury to the team. They would be right. A pessimist would say that while those two will certainly help, sooner or later A-Rod and Teixeira will realize it is 2015 and not 2005. They might be right too, and that presents the biggest conundrum for the Yankees as they consider the upcoming trade deadline.

Teixeira is having the best OPS+ season of his Yankees’ career. A-Rod is having his best OPS+ season since 2008. Is it reasonable to expect either of them to continue to perform at these levels? I would say no, but so far the stats aren’t agreeing with me. A-Rod had his worst month at the plate in June, but his line of .281/.411/.489 is still very formidable. Teixeira had a lower OPS in June than he had in April or May, but he had a much better average and again, his line of. 259/.366/.506 is more than acceptable. Both show no signs of producing anywhere near below-average at this point.

And if you believe that A-Rod and Teixeira can keep producing at levels that are at least league average, you have to try to upgrade the talent on this roster. There are five areas you can upgrade on a contending team- starting pitching, relief pitching, regular lineup, bench, and defense. I will examine each over the next five days.

 

CC The Loogy?

Hardball Talk had a great post today about CC Sabathia’s struggles the deeper he gets into games. You can read it here, but the headline is this Sabathia gets worse the more pitches he throws. Here are the ugly numbers:

  • Pitches 1-15: .234/.294/.404
  • Pitches 16-30: .317/.339/.426
  • Pitches 31-45: .318/.333/.523
  • Pitches 46-60: .333/.357/.718

The average MLB pitcher surrenders a line of .253/.314/.396 so Sabathia really only exceeds that mark on his first 15 pitches. Once he reaches 16 pitches, he surrenders a a higher line, and by the time he reaches 46 pitches he is getting shelled. Add in the fact that righties are hitting .329/.363/.574 against him, and you have the portrait of a typical Lefty Only One Out Guy (LOOGY).

Of course those guys don’t get paid $20-plus million to pitch and that is the problem the Yankees are having. Girardi and Cashman are blinded by Sabathia’s past performances and insist that things will get better. Would a pitcher making say $8-million a year get that loyalty? I highly doubt it.

The thing is, the contract is a sunk cost, the data shows that Sabathia isn’t close to the pitcher he once was, past performance is no guarantee of future results, what else can you say? Last week I suggested that the Yankees come up with an injury for CC and get him off the mound. With the news that Adam Warren is headed to the bullpen, that isn’t happening, but hopefully the idea is starting to take hold within the Yankees’ hierarchy.

Repeat After Me…

…when a player opts-out, let him leave. When a player opts-out, let him leave. When a player….

Recently, we have seen two players opt-out of their Yankees contracts and both times the Yankees have thrown more money at them to bring them back. In 2007, Alex Rodriguez opted out of his deal and was rewarded with a $275-million/10-year deal. In 2011, CC Sabathia opted-out of his deal with the Yankees and got at least an extra $25-millon and most likely, an extra $50-million. Don’t blame the players for these actions. They had an opportunity to use the leverage given to them and they took it. It was Yankee management that made the boneheaded move.

Think about an alternate universe where the Yankees simply walked away from both A-Rod and Sabathia after the 2007 and 2011 seasons respectively. With A-Rod, the Yankees would have missed all the “fun” of his PED use and suspensions. On the field, they would have missed a guy who has missed almost 30% of the games he has been eligible to play since he signed that deal. With Sabathia, the Yankees would have missed a great clubhouse guy and a great 2012 season, but they would have also missed his painful decline to mediocre pitcher or worse at this point.

I bring this up today for two reasons. First, Tanaka has an opt-out after the 2017 season. If he uses it, we will see if the Yankees have learned anything. Second, because the Yankees have a big problem with CC Sabathia.

Sabathia has not been a league-average pitcher or better since 2012. In 2013 he put up a 4.78 ERA. While ugly, his FIP of 4.10 suggests he was better than that. The problem is, the AL ERA was 3.99, so even if you give him the benefit of the doubt and embrace his FIP, he was still below average. In 2014 he only made eight starts and put up an ERA over 5 again, with an FIP of 4.78. The league ERA was 3.81, so he was almost a run above it based on FIP alone. In 2015 he has an ERA of 5.65, a FIP of 4.50 while the league average is ERA 3.89. So he is closer to the average, but still well below it. Those three seasons represent 55 starts, so they are a large enough sample to draw some conclusions from and the conclusion has to be that Sabathia isn’t league-average pitcher at this point.

Why is that? Some of Sabathia’s pitch data gives us an idea. In 2009, Sabathia threw either a fastball or a slider almost 80% of the time. His fastball averaged 94.1 mph and his slider averaged 92.2. In 2015, Sabathia has thrown a fastball or slider 43% of the time. His fastball is averaging 89.9 mph and his slider 89 mph. (2013 was the last season he threw more than 50% fastballs+sliders). His favorite pitch right now is a sinker, thrown 29.1% of the time. The problem is, he isn’t getting ground balls with it.

Sabathia has a ground ball to fly ball ratio of 0.83 right now. That’s actually right at his career rate. But those fly balls are going to different places than they once did. For his career, 13% of the flyballs hit against Sabathia have been to the infield. Infield flyballs are almost always outs. In 2015, that ratio is down to 8%. In addition, 25% of the balls put in play against Sabathia are line drives. (The MLB average is 20% and his career average is 19%) Since liners are the usually the hardest ball to record an out on, this is not good.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but the problem seems pretty obvious. Sabathia is trying to change his pitch mix and it isn’t working. I don’t know if he can live with a fastball/slider combo that averages under 90-mph. Mike Mussina did it in 2008, but he also had a really slow (73-mph) change up to complement those. Sabathia’s change up is averaging 83.5-mph. Perhaps it isn’t slow enough?

For now, I think the Yankees and Sabathia need to come up with a way to get him off the mound. A “tired arm” or some other minor ailment and a trip to the DL might be the best for everyone. Get him throwing on the side, let him rehab in the minors for a few starts and try some new things out. Anything would be better than trying to keep running him out there every fifth day. That is clearly not working.

 

Royal Flush?

MLB announced the latest All-Star vote totals today and if you are not a Kansas City Royal, you should demand a trade to them if you want to play in this game. Eight of the nine starting spots for the AL are now held by Royals. Only Mike Trout breaks up a clean sweep for KC.

I have complained about the All-Star Game before and this vote reinforces my gripes. You can’t keep telling me that the game “counts” but allow the lineups to be selected by biased fan bases. (Please note, I would make this same complaint if 8 Yankees were leading the voting.) I get it, the Royals fans want to reward their players for last season and are voting for them like crazy. The only fix I would ask for is that baseball drop the preposterous plan that home field advantage in the World Series goes to the league that wins the All-Star Game. Switch it back to rotating every other year or, and here’s a novel idea for a league that prides itself on a 162-game season, award it to the team with the best record!

But that won’t happen because FOX has convinced MLB that this helps them get more viewers and that allows them to pay MLB more money. MLB has always been willing to sell its soul for another buck, but this is getting silly. They have neutered the concept of AL and NL through the years by eliminating the separate league offices, standardizing the umpires to call both leagues’ games, and finally forcing interleague play on us year-round. My National League friends don’t want to hear it, but I will bet anybody the DH will be the standard in both leagues very soon. (Pitcher salaries are reaching the point where owners won’t want to pay them to take any unnecessary risks) How about you throw the fans a bone and let us enjoy the EXHIBITION game that the All-Star game was created to be? Then I won’t care who gets put in the starting lineup. Well, unless some of my favorite Yankees don’t make it!

 

Better Late Than Never

Back in the early days of 2013, optimistic Yankees fans envisioned an outfield circa 2015 of homegrown players. The Yankees had three outfielders ranked among the Top-100 prospects in baseball by Baseball America. Tyler Austin was ranked 73rd and envisioned as the right fielder of the future. Slade Heathcott was ranked 63rd and penciled in to left. Highest-rated of all was Mason Williams, 32nd, a speedy center fielder who could play defense with the best of them and hit for average and some power.

But baseball doesn’t work that way. Disappointing 2013 campaigns by the trio were followed by bad 2014 campaigns. Austin had to repeat AA and while he improved his numbers, the prospect label was no longer applied to him. Heathcott fell so far that he was removed from the 40-man roster, but came back on a minor-league deal. Williams, coming off a sub-.600 OPS at Trenton, seemed like a lock to be exposed to the Rule 5 draft, but the Yankees added him to the 40-man roster instead. It’s a good thing they did.

We saw Heathcott for a moment after Ellsbury went down and he didn’t disappoint. He went 6-for-17 with a double and a homer, but as he has been apt to do in his career, he got hurt and left us wanting more. Tonight we get to see the second of this former trio of prospects when Mason Williams makes his debut in center, batting ninth.

Mason stormed into the picture with a complete rebound from 2014. In 2014 he put up an anemic line of .223/.290/.304 at AA. In 2015 he hit .317/.407/.375 before getting promoted to AAA. There he hit .321/.382/.432 and now he is in the Bronx. And while he isn’t the prospect the Yankees thought they had in 2013, it is worth remembering he is still only 23. He has taken a winding path to the majors, but now he has a chance to show he belongs there. It should be fun to watch.

Stomach Punch

The Yankees are placing Andrew Miller on the DL with a strain in his left forearm. Joe Girardi said that he “won’t throw for 10 to two weeks and then you go from there.”

Well we know that Betances will close while Miller is down, but the problem is, who replaces Betances? Wilson has been mediocre. Lindgren doesn’t look ready. Capuano and Rogers aren’t the answer. This is going to get interesting to say the least.

 

Ian Kennedy Would Be Fine

Most articles describing the Yankees first round draft pick, James Kapreielian, compare him to Ian Kennedy. It is meant to explain that while he has talent, his ceiling is not huge, perhaps that of a #3 starter in a good rotation. The thing is, that is a great return for the #16 pick in the draft.

The problem with the draft is that for all the scouting money poured into it, it is still a crapshoot. First round picks should be sure things, but going back in draft history shows you how uncertain they really are. Let’s look at the 2006 draft, Ian Kennedy’s, for an example.

Including supplementary picks, there were 44 selections made that June. Of those 44, 11 didn’t make the majors. Of the remaining 33, ten have appeared in only a handful of games.

Ian Kennedy was the 21st player taken, and the 13th pitcher.  Let’s look at each one.

First, and number one overall, was Luke Hochevar. Hochevar has made 128 mostly terrible starts in the bigs and is currently a middle reliever.

Greg Reynolds was second overall and had three cups of coffee in the bigs.

Brad Lincoln was fourth overall and is currently in AAA with a 9-11 record in the bigs.

Brandon Morrow was fifth overall and is hurt again, but he has had a few decent moments in the bigs.

Andrew Miller, yes that Andrew Miller was sixth. Clearly, he is a dominant reliever, but he was a failed starter in the bigs.

You can’t argue with the 7th, 10th, and 11th overall picks except to say they should have been taken higher. Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, and Max Scherzer are all brand names and two of them may reach the Hall of Fame.

And then there is the quartet of Kasey Kiker (12th), Jeremy Jefress (16th)Kyle Drabek (18th), and Brett Sinkbell (19th). None of them has done anything to write about in the bigs.

Then there is Kennedy at 21. And while some of the names taken after him in the first round (Daniel Bard, Joba Chamberlain, and David Huff) are familiar, you probably need to go to the seventh round and Doug Fister, to find a pitcher taken later who has clearly had a better career. (Chris Archer was taken in the fifth round and looks like he will far surpass him too, but he needs to put in a few more years.)

So, I am perfectly ok with the Yankees taking an Ian Kennedy type of player. If you look at the way the system works today, it is the smarter play. There are basically four ways to acquire talent.

1- MLB draft

2- Free agency

3- Trades

4- International signings

International signings are going to be huge risks because you sign the players when they are 16. Free agency is going to be risky and expensive. Trades are probably where you can get the most value, but they are also the hardest to execute. That leaves the draft and teams can certainly swing for the fences, but the smarter approach is to aim for base hits. If you create a draft pipeline of major-league caliber players, not necessarily stars, just players who belong on big league rosters, your team will have more assets than other teams. That gives you leverage in trades and less holes to fill with free agency.

That seems to be what the Yankees have done more of in recent years. They are drafting college players (lower ceilings but easier to project) and seeing good results. Their top pick last year is already in the majors and two of the three before that- Judge and Jagielo- are getting close. Nothing is guaranteed with draft picks, but the Yankees will happily take another Ian Kennedy.

Warren Warning

The popular perception of Adam Warren is that he is becoming an invaluable piece of the Yankees’ rotation. With his 3.64 ERA, he is quickly becoming the third-best pitcher in the rotation and when/if Ivan Nova returns Warren isn’t the guy who should go back to the bullpen. It’s a nice story, but it is completely wrong.

Yes, Warren has a 3.64 ERA while Sabathia and Eovaldi have higher ones, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. For a better look, let’s rely on FIP and scratch beneath the surface. Warren hasn’t been good as much as he has been lucky. His FIP is a 4.67, higher than both Sabathia’s and Eovaldi’s. This isn’t a surprise as he is striking out only 5.3 per nine innings while walking 3.1. He is giving up more home runs than he historical has yet hitters are only hitting .247 against him. Add it all up, and his ERA will be going up in the not so distant future.

But that doesn’t mean that Warren isn’t valuable, he is just valuable in a different role- righty arm in the bullpen. If you look at Warren’s splits, you can see that something dramatic happens after pitch 50 in a game. His OPS against shoots up even though his BABIP is much lower than during his first 50 pitches. The Yankees need a righty arm in the bullpen and putting Warren back there when Nova returns is the right way to go.

 

A Small Surprise

We knew the Yankees were going to have to make a roster move to get Masahiro Tanaka activated today. We knew the roster move would involve a pitcher. What is surprising is that the move is a DFA of David Carpenter. Carpenter was brought in to be a power righty in the late innings and he flopped. His strikeout rate plunged while his home run rate increased. His ERA is almost five, but his FIP is even higher. Clearly he wasn’t getting it done, but it is still a surprise. I say that for two reasons. First, they just traded Manny Banuelos for Carpenter and Shreve and Carpenter hasn’t even reached arbitration eligibility yet.  Second, by removing Carpenter from the bullpen, the Yankees now have five lefties and two righties in there. That could be a serious problem.

Now the first reason doesn’t bother me at all and actually encourages me. The Yankees recognized that Carpenter was sunk cost and they decided the best course of action was to get rid of him and find a different solution. That’s a great way to think in a sport where guaranteed contracts tend to paralyze decision making. (Carpenter is only making $1.3-million, but still the cheap/easier move would have been to demote Lindgren.)

The second reason is more of a worry to me because five lefties is a huge number and it only works if the lefties can get righties and lefties out. Here the Yankees may have some issues. Not with Andrew Miller, he clearly gets both out. And not with Justin Wilson. His numbers aren’t pretty so far, but his FIP is 3.06 and he has held lefties to almost the exact same OPS as righties in his career. The problem is that beyond that we just don’t know what the remaining lefties are capable of.

Capuano is the long guy, and so far this season he hasn’t gotten lefties or righties out. How his FIP is almost two runs less than his ERA, but an ERA over 4 is still below average in the majors this year. Then you have Shreve and Lindgren, two guys with potential, but not much in the way of a track record. Those two are the key to this move. If they can pitch to both lefties and righties, the Yankees have made a smart decision. If they can’t, expect the bullpen shuttle to warm up quickly. It’s a gutsy move and one that I like, but there is plenty of risk to it.