Outfield Depth Getting Challenged in New York

Remember last year when  the Yankees had the equivalent of most teams’ payrolls sitting on the injured list? Remember? Guess what? Here we are in Spring Training and already the Yankees are winning the injured list payroll game! Yay! Go, Yankees! Ouch. What a bad way to start the pre-season. You won’t hear this too often about the Yankees, but they are going to start the season with one hand tied behind their collective back. Domingo German, their most successful starting pitcher from 2019, is out for a little more than a third of the season for violating the league’s PED rules. That is a self-inflicted wound unlike the injuries. Adding to their rotation woes, Luis Severino is out for the year with Tommy John surgery as of 2/27/20. Severino had back to back 5 WAR seasons in 2017 and 2018. Adding to that, James Paxton just had back surgery in February so he is out for the early part of the season at least. Yeah, they added Gerrit Cole but then went out and lost 60% of the rotation behind him. If we are talking about injury impact, that isn’t even the part of the team that has been hit the hardest percentage-wise. The outfield, which is what this article will focus on, currently is without 100% of the starting three, and it is possible they will start the regular season that way! So it’s hard to talk about the Yankees outfield without including a lot of talk about injuries and depth, so let’s get to it.

In left, we have that behemoth masher of the leather covered pill – check that – we have Mike Tauchman. Giancarlo Stanton (the aforementioned masher) is on the IL with a strained calf and, after playing only 18 games last season due to a myriad of injuries, the Yankees have to be concerned about the durability of their cleanup hitter moving forward. Back to Tauchman in a moment – a healthy Stanton is usually good for 35 or more home runs with good on-base skills. His career slash line is .268/.358/.547 with a 142 wRC+. That is nigh on impossible to replace but, at 30 years of age, Stanton seems to be having a hard time staying off the IL. His latest injury doesn’t appear to be serious, but where would you put the over/under on games played? 150? 120? 85? The Yankees need him to at least get to his Depth Charts projection of 123. There are a couple small sample size curiosities to watch this year, like the nearly 5% drop in his swing rate in 2019 without a noticeable change in his contact rate. Stanton also experienced a nearly 3% improvement on his contact rate on balls outside the strike zone – a career high of 55%. UZR/150 and DRS have generally liked Stanton as an outfielder, so if his legs are good that gives them good defense in left field even if it is a mix and match situation in the other corner. The Yankees will probably try to wrap Stanton in bubble wrap for the rest of the spring in hopes that this latest booboo is minor.

Oh yeah – Mike Tauchman was a Fan Graphs favorite while he was toiling away in anonymity in the Rockies minor league system. It didn’t make much of a splash when the Rockies traded him to the Yankees for Phillip Diehl, a then 24 year old lefty who was taken in the 27th round of the 2016 draft. Diehl finished his season getting lit up in Colorado Springs (triple-A) while Tauchman finally got a real chance to play in the Majors – the Rockies only gave him 69 plate appearances over two seasons – and he slashed .277/.361/.504 for a wRC+ of 128. In 296 plate appearances Tauchman made it clear that he had talent at the plate. He also put up good defensive numbers in all three outfield spots. How many 4th outfielders can play center well and perform 28% better than average with the bat? Not many, because guys who produce like that are usually called starting outfielders. Assuming Tauchman is for real, he will get 400+ plate appearances – more if Stanton and Judge miss substantial time. For now, he is the primary starting left fielder until Stanton is ready to roll.

Aaron Hicks – uh, Brett Gardner is probably the starter in center as Hicks recovers from elbow surgery. Gardner, who is 36, just had his most productive full season in the majors from an offensive standpoint with a wRC+ of 115. His 28 home runs far surpassed his previous career high of 21 – the only other time he hit more than 17. Even though Gardner reached the other side of the fence a lot last year, he is no longer the big base-stealing threat he used to be. He should no longer be a top of the order hitter as his OBP dropped to .325 in 2019 (.322 in 2018) down from his career mark of .342. It says a lot about Gardner that at 36 the Yankees are ok running him out to center field until Hicks recovers. He is no longer a Gold Glove defender – he won the award once in 2016 – but he still puts up positive DRS and UZR/150 for now. If his power numbers fall back to his previous levels, the Yankees will have a hard time playing him everyday. Gardner has become a 2.0 to 3.0 WAR player, which is great for most teams, but the Yankees expect more from their starters, so a decline below that mark would lead to the Yankees declining his 2021 team option.

Aaron Hicks was coming off a 5.0 WAR season (2018) in his first year as a full-time starter. He was off to a slow start in 2019 then played his last game on August 3rd. Now with his elbow reconstructed, Hicks will have to fight to get his job back when he returns mid-season because the Yankees are so deep. He provides power (27 bombs in 2018), solid-to-good defense in center (7 career DRS in center), and some plate discipline when he is right (OBP of .372 in 2017 and .366 in 2018). But if you look at Hicks’ career slash line, it is hard to see him as a starter on a championship level club – .236/.328/.401. The Yankees must be a little worried that his career slash line is more representative of the real Aaron Hicks than his 5.0 WAR 2018 after he slashed only .235/.325/.443 last year. He will definitely be given an opportunity to win his job back unless the Yankees have an outbreak of good health and Tauchman or Gardner has a spectacular first half.

Right field belongs to Aaron Judge – or is it Clint Frazier, or Miguel Andujar. Judge is a superstar and he owns right field as long as he is healthy, which – of course – he isn’t right now – stress fracture of a rib. Judge is not a one-dimensional masher, although he would still start if that were the case because his power is tremendous. In 1718 career plate appearances – the equivalent of almost three full seasons – Judge has 110 home runs. The main issue with Judge – and stop me if you’ve heard this before – is his health. Judge, who is likely to miss the start of this season, only played in 112 and 102 games in 2018 and 2019 respectively, due to injuries. He will play most of the season as a 28 year old and has amassed 17.8 WAR already. His career slash line is about what he does every year – .273/.394/.558 so he gets on base in spite of his high strikeout rates –  a career mark of 31.6%. He takes a lot of pitches looking for something he can mash and he has been consistent with that approach. His swing rate each of the last three seasons has been between 40.3% and 41.9%. Also, his swing rate on pitches outside the strike zone is annually about 5% below average for the rest of the league. So he is going to strike out but he is also going to take some walks. And when he swings – well, his hard hit rate for his career is 48.6% which leads to some pretty high BABIPs because he hits the dang ball so hard! Compare his career wRC+ of 152 to Stanton’s 142 and you see why the Yankees have so much invested in the two hitters. Add in Judge’s good outfield defense (20 DRS last season in right) and you can see why Judge is the golden child of the position players.

The mention of a golden child might have been reserved for Clint Frazier a couple seasons ago when he looked like a can’t-miss prospect. Frazier seems to have shed the shininess that comes with being a 5th overall pick now that he is 25 and hasn’t established himself as a regular. Part of that comes with being a Yankee minor leaguer but Frazier also has some warts. The former Indian prospect, has decent power, but doesn’t walk enough, especially when you look at how often he strikes out. His career slash line in 429 plate appearances is .254/.308/.463 with a 6.5% walk rate and a 29.4% K rate. He has always had a pretty high K rate in the minors, but his walk rate used to get over 10% pretty regularly. If he can get back there in the Majors, then Frazier works as a starter IF he can improve on his defense, which has been consistently poor/bad to this point. Last year in about a half a season of work, mostly as a corner outfielder, he cost the team somewhere between 11 and 17 runs (DRS of -11 and UZR/150 of -16.7). The bat hasn’t shown quite enough to be a DH but the glove has profiled very much like a DH. Frazier gets another chance to play some outfield because of injuries and might be playing for a trade to another club. His future doesn’t look good in New York where they have plenty of corner outfield/DH types, but if he shows improvement there will be teams who are interested. At 25, it is time for Frazier to show what he can do or that fading prospect shininess won’t help him much longer.

Another 25 year old is in the mix for some outfield time – Miguel Andujar. Similar to Frazier, Andujar isn’t a big fan of the free pass (4.1% career walk rate), but unlike Frazier, Andujar has a 130 wRC+ season under his belt and doesn’t strike out nearly as often (16.3% K rate). The Yankees have worked Andujar in the outfield this spring and the reports have been good, but he has only played third base in the majors – a position currently filled by Gio Urshela – so he will either work in the outfield or find himself DHing and maybe getting some time at first.  Andujar has already gotten to his raw power in the majors hitting 27 bombs in his first full season in the majors in 2018, but lost almost all of 2019 to injury resulting in surgery this past May for a torn labrum. Andujar’s arm was one of his best tools (a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale) so his recovery will dictate a lot positionally. He is athletic, so a move to the outfield isn’t far fetched.

Obviously it would be best for all concerned in Yankee land for Stanton to recover quickly and have a mostly injury free season. The same goes for Judge. At this point it seems clear that neither of those outcomes are likely and Hicks will definitely miss a lot of time. That means the Yankees will have to rely on their depth right out of the gate. This will force the Yankees to see what they have in Clint Frazier and give them a chance to see if Miguel Andujar can learn to play the outfield at the major league level. Of course it is possible that neither of those experiments works out, Mike Tauchman gets over-exposed starting everyday, and Yankee fans are forced to watch Brett Gardner decline in real time. I don’t know about you, but I think it will be fun to watch the Yankees have to work to put their lineup together like mortals instead of just running superstars out to each position. I am not happy to see Stanton, Hicks, or Judge, who seems like a great guy, felled by injuries, but all teams have to deal with that and the Yankees have the depth to deal with it better than most. If Tauchman repeats and Frazier improves, it will mean they get to have careers as starters probably on some other team once Judge, Stanton, and Hicks get healthy (if that actually happens). Lots of moving parts here, but we are talking about the Yankees, so they will either figure it out or trade from their depth of young players to fix it.

Can the Yankees Play Moneyball 2, too?

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.