When big money teams start using small-market team strategies then what is left for the small market teams to do other than to have disco demolition night at the park? Last year saw the A’s go with a tape and glue-stick starting rotation and a very deep, very good bullpen that they employed to win 97 games. Oakland was projected to win in the vicinity of 75 games by most prognosticators, so it makes one take notice that they very much out-performed their projections using a novel approach to pitching. The Yankees don’t have to scrimp and save because, unlike the A’s, they have more than two nickels to rub together if they so desire. New York went out and got James Paxton to bolster their rotation, but also traded away Sonny Gray, and now both Luis Severino and C.C. Sabathia are at risk for missing some time with shoulder and knee issues. This off-season they signed Gio Gonzalez to a minor league deal and lost setup man Dellin Betances for the start of the season. Should the Yankees be worried? Have you seen their pen?
When the Yankees traded for James Paxton they knew what they were getting – a supremely talented starting pitcher who was heading into his age 30 season and has yet to make more than 28 starts in a major league season or tally more than 160.33 innings in one big league campaign. Paxton’s fan rate was 11.68 batters per 9 in 2018 which marks the 4th season in a row of improvement for Paxton. His walk rate was at 2.36 per 9 which is below his career rate of 2.60. Paxton throws his mid-90s fastball about two thirds of the time and mixes a curveball and cutter the rest of the time after all but abandoning his change. Paxton’s pitch mix leads to a lot of batters chasing pitches outside the zone – about 5% above league average, and a lot of swinging strikes in general – over 14% of the time – almost 4% above league average. So Paxton throws strikes and also gets guys to fruitlessly chase his offerings, even when they are not strikes. What’s not to love? Well, last year almost 15% of fly balls off Paxton ended up as souvenirs of the home run variety. That is well above his career rate, and HR/FB% is a particularly volatile stat so it is likely that Paxton will get back to his 10% or less rate – especially as a lefty pitching in Yankee stadium. Paxton is good, really good, but a health risk, a pretty hefty health risk.
Who is Luis Severino? Is he the dude who went 19-8 last season? Is he the guy who posted a 2.31 ERA in the first half or the guy who posted a 5.57 ERA in the second half? Right now Severino is the guy who will start the season on the IL (formerly known as the DL) with rotator cuff inflammation. The wishful thinkers have him returning to action sometime in May. That is probably the best-case scenario depending on the severity of the shoulder injury, but shoulder injuries are much scarier than elbow injuries because of the complexity of the shoulder capsule. It looks like the Yankees are not going to have their ace at top form for a good piece of the first half if not longer and that is a tragedy. At 25, Severino has established himself as a top-notch starter who is good for 190 innings – that is nearly impossible to replace. So Paxton is the ace now which bumps Masahiro Tanaka into the two spot.
Masahiro Tanaka is 30 and with three seasons of MLB pitching under his belt, it is pretty clear what he is. The Yankees should expect about 175 innings with low walk totals (around 2 per 9) and 9 or so strikeouts per 9, with a lot of home runs – a career rate of 1.33 per 9 to date. With a career ERA of 3.59, he is in solid number three starter territory. He does it with a slider thrown more and more often – up to 33% in 2018 – and a splitter up to 30% last season with his fastball only seeing the light off day about 26% of the time and decreasing every year. Tanaka always gives up a lot of home runs, but that profile works if his walk rate stays low and he allows fewer than a hit per inning. If traffic increases, and his homer rate stays where it is, then Tanaka will struggle to keep his ERA down. At 30 years old with an elbow ligament that is suboptimal but hanging in there, Tanaka’s 2019 should look a lot like his 2018. He is a solid number three and will hopefully be able to get to that slot rather than spending the whole season carrying a bigger load than what his profile dictates.
J.A. Happ should benefit from the move to Yankee stadium for his home games where it is friendlier for lefty hurlers. He should not benefit from aging as he is now 36. Not that 36 year old pitchers can’t succeed, and Happ had one of his best years ever in 2018 when his strikeout rate jumped to 9.78 per 9 – a career high – and his walk rate dropped to 2.58 which is more than a half a walk below his career rate. His fastball, which sits about 92, was his best pitch last year and he has held onto his velocity year after year. Happ should be good for 160 or so innings which the Yankees will desperately need if Severino, Sabathia, and Betances miss substantial time. He fits nicely into the three slot as long as he holds onto his 3 WAR goodness, and is able to go to the hill 30 or so times.
In 2015 and 2016 it looked like CC Sabathia was cooked, but he took control of his demons and constructed his own revival turning back into a solid contributor to the rotation in 2017 and 2018 with 4.3 WAR over the two campaigns. The 38 year old has announced that this will be his last season and at 6’6, 300 pounds he is having knee problems this spring. The Yankees need him to be the 2017-2018 pitcher or they might be in some trouble. If he can give the Yanks 140 innings of solid mid-to-high 3’s ERA then the farewell tour will be devoid of the gnashing of teeth and might end in some post-season love for Carsten Charles Sabathia. If the knee derails his season then the Yankees are going to have to scramble to fill the void.
Speaking of scrambling, the Yankees signed Gio Gonzalez to a minor league deal at the end of the off-season, which is a good thing if he spends most of the season as a veteran insurance policy, and a bad thing if he pitches like he has the last two seasons and is forced to make 30 starts. Gonzalez is a fastball-curveball-change up pitcher and has lost 2 MPH off of his heater in the last two seasons and closer to 4 MPH since 2015. His change up has not decreased in velocity by as much so the separation between the two pitches has decreased. Not surprisingly, the pitch value of his change up was down dramatically in 2018. Somewhat surprisingly, his fastball value has been up the last two seasons from where it sat before the drop, but his signature curveball has become much less effective. So what does this all mean? It might mean that the 33 year old pitcher is into the decline phase of his career. It might also mean that he could adjust to his new reality and experience a few more years of success. That said, there aren’t a lot of pitchers who throw their fastball 89-90 who can hold a rotation spot and thrive without a knockout secondary pitch and a third pitch that works to keep the batter from sitting on his other two offerings. If, as it likely is, we get to watch him get a few starts in Yankee stadium, we will see if he has made the adjustment and finds a way to succeed in his new digs.
There isn’t a lot on the near horizon in the minors to help with their pitching staff as their best pitching prospects are a couple years away. The best exception is Jonathan Loaisiga, an undersized right-hander who got his first taste of the Majors in 2018. Loaisiga, who has one of the best baseball food related nicknames ever (Johnny Lasagna), already has a nasty three pitch mix that includes a mid-90s fastball, a curveball, and an improving changeup, but he has been slowed by injuries to the point where in 6 seasons of professional baseball Loaisiga just broke the 180 inning mark for his career. To hope that he could contribute 150 innings this season seems like wish-casting of the highest order. It looks like he might get an opportunity to start in New York as Sabathia and Severino struggle with health issues. He looked pretty valuable in his 9 starts in New York last season as he struck out 33 batters in just under 25 innings and didn’t allow a home run. His ERA was 5.11 and he gave up 26 hits, but for a first exposure to the bigs that was a solid start, even if it was a small sample size. If he sticks in the rotation I would imagine the Yankees would have a pretty firm cap on his innings – 120 or something pretty low – since his season high to date is 80.66. If he makes the rotation then that’s potentially four starting pitchers who might not hit the 150 inning mark. He started the season in the minors as the Yankees sent him down as camp broke, but has already been called up to make two starts.
Domingo German isn’t a top prospect but made 14 starts for the Yankees in 2018 and has already made two starts this season. The 26 year old mixes four pitches well, including a hard slider that he throws as fast as his heater, and a curveball that he throws about a third of the time. Control issues have been his biggest weakness and he has also been homer prone, but he has some swing and miss capability as batters have missed at a higher rate than league average at pitches in and out of the zone. He is at least interesting and if he can eat innings and even be league average then the Yankees have a find.
New York tipped their hand a bit this off-season when they traded for Paxton. Why would the Yankees send a top pitching prospect like Justus Sheffield to Seattle to get Paxton knowing that they probably can’t expect 200 innings from him? Yes, he is great, and not to beat a dead horse or anything but see above – the Yankees might not end up getting a 150 inning season out of 80 percent of the dudes who make up their rotation. Why would they push all in on that “strategy”? The answer is that the Yankees have built what might be the best bullpen in all of baseball. With the off-season acquisitions of Adam Ottavino and the closer formerly known as Zach Britton (now Zack Britton), the Yankees now have five relievers who have been closers or were considered the best relievers on their teams. That is some serious depth. It seems to be the rich guy’s version of the A’s strategy of propping up their suspect rotation with a deep, lights out pen. I doubt the Yankees will employ the opener strategy like the A’s and Rays did last year, but the Yankees could survive injuries to the starters or just a lack of starter stamina with a pen as deep as theirs. Having the kind of depth they have in the pen might also allow the Yankees to keep their starters healthy by keeping their pitch counts down. It will be interesting to watch. The bullpen makeup is likely to change throughout the season but not so much the core.
Let’s start with the guy who will get the most chances to finish games for the Yankees, Aroldis Chapman. His fastball velocity is not what it used to be, down 2 MPH since 2016 to a still ludicrous 99.1 according to Pitch Info (via FanGraphs). His pitch mix has changed some with an increase in sliders to 25.5% last season, up from his career rate of 17.9%. With his changed pitch mix came some interesting results. His slider was more effective as he used it more, and so was his change. Not everything came up roses for Aroldis though as his walk rate was up from a career rate of 4.19 to last season’s 5.26 per 9, as was his hard hit ball percentage – 34.5% – up from a career rate of 27.5%. He was quite hard to get a hit off of though – harder than usual – with a .268 BABIP which might indicate some luck last year and might portend an increase in ERA this year as he drifts back to to the middle of the luck spectrum. It is good to take all those potential signs into account but remember that he is really hard to hit as indicated by the swing and miss numbers both on pitches in the zone (15% lower than league average) and on pitches that would not have been strikes (8% lower than league average). Chapman is still a beast.
It is tough to say who will be the setup guy when Dellin Betances is healthy because the Yankees have so many pitchers to choose from (including Betances). Adam Ottavino had an unbelievable 2018. If you have time, go looking for articles about how he remade himself in the off-season. It is very much a “pull yourself up by your boot-straps” story (plus technology!). Ottavino’s slider is about as nasty as it gets and he threw it almost 50% of the time, mixing in a sinker and cutter. Otto struck out 13 batters per 9 innings and 53% of the balls batters put into play were either ground balls or infield popups. One of the biggest changes in Ottavino’s results was the big drop in the percentage of baseballs that left the yard – down from a career average of 11.8% to 8.6% last season. That number could just be a result of season to season fluctuation or it could be a result of his improved slider. Either way, if he looks anything like he did last year the Yankees could use him to close when Chapman isn’t available or they could use him in the 7th or 8th. Don’t be surprised if his slider usage increases even more in 2019 with the slider-happy Yankees.
Of course the Yankees could go with Zack Britton late in the game. Britton had one of the more amazing seasons ever for a closer in 2016 when his ERA for the season was 0.54. While he hasn’t been that guy in the last two seasons, he has still been pretty good even while he has struggled with injuries. Britton isn’t the type of closer who gets a ton of swing and miss; he is more the guy who gets you to roll over on the pitch and beat it into the ground. His sinker has been one of the best in baseball and it is still good, even though it has slowed two ticks to around 95 MPH instead of 97 MPH. He still threw it more than 90% of the time but didn’t get his usual double-digit value out of it. Batters chased it a bit less often when it missed the strike zone so maybe they were seeing it better. Is it the drop in velocity that is making the sinker less effective or is he getting less sink? Will his velocity or movement (if he even lost any) come back with a stretch of health? His role and effectiveness at the start of the season will give us clues as to how the Yankees use the former closer. He is only 31 so if he is healthy, that sinker will still play and he will continue to have a chance to pitch high leverage situations – possible coming in with runners on base to induce ground ball double plays. When a player has a season that is otherworldly, anything less makes it seem like there is something wrong, but usually what it means is that everything came together that one time and now the player is hitting his middle projections – nothing wrong with Britton at his normal level of effectiveness.
They can always use Chad Green late in a game. Even though he will likely not get to close – and if he does that probably means the Yankees are in trouble having lost three of their stud relievers – but Green could close for many teams. He has a fastball heavy approach that became even fastball heavier in 2018 as he threw his heater about 87% of the time (up from 67.7% in 2017 which is about his career rate) and saw his velocity pick up a half MPH. His slider usage has dropped off two seasons in a row from 29.4% in 2016, to 22.5% in 2017, to only 10.2% of the time last year. His velocity was up on the slider and it was less effective whether through predictable usage patterns, lack of command, or less movement – hard to know. Whatever the case, Green had another really good season even though his hard hit rate was up about 9% as was his home run rate. He took a step back from his superior 2017 numbers but still posted a FIP of 2.86 and a WHIP OF 1.04 over 75.66 innings while fanning more than 11 per nine and walking fewer than 2 per nine. His tendency to pound the strike zone will mean he will give up a few home runs, but hey – still looks like a closer to most teams.
Dellin Betances could close too when he gets healthy. Here are some numbers to ponder – Betances has struck out more than 15 batters per 9 innings pitched each of the last three seasons. If you combine his last three seasons you get to about 200 innings (199.33), which is a good number of innings pitched for a starter for a single season, and he has fanned 341 batters during that stretch. The closest anyone has come in any of the last three seasons was Chris Sale with 308 in 2017. Yes, extrapolating a reliever’s numbers to a starter’s single season workload is an unfair comparison, but if you are looking for a dominant strikeout pitcher Betances is your man. He does it with a pretty even mix of a 98 MPH fastball and a curveball. Batters swung at more of his pitches in 2018 and made more contact by a bit, but his first strike rate was also up and his walk rate was down. With a FIP of 2.47 over 66.66 innings last year, the Yankees pen looks a lot different if his shoulder trouble is significant and he misses more than a few days in the first half.
Yes, there are other pitchers in the Yankees pen but this is the core with the other arms likely to change some over the course of the season. If Betances is healthy soon then the Yankees have plenty of cover for their starting rotation if it fails to provide the innings you would expect from a group you hope to take you deep into the playoffs. The Yankees will run into trouble if Paxton, Severino, and Tanaka go down for a significant amount of time and Betances doesn’t come back healthy soon. There are a lot of question marks in the rotation, but the only one in the pen is how often and how soon can Betances go? Fans should also keep in mind that the Yankees have the resources to go get more help if things start to slip. In the meantime, the Yanks can baby their rotation a bit using the deep pen to keep from overtaxing the starters which might mean none of them break down at all during the season and are healthy when the post-season starts. If they make it to the playoffs and the pen is not over-taxed then they are set up to go deep into the post-season.