Tanaka Needs To Show Us Something

Stacey mentioned in her open thread yesterday that Joe Girardi stated that Masahiro Tanaka had to show Girardi something in Tanaka's last Spring Training game to get the nod for the Opening Day Starter. And while Girardi dismissed the importance of such an "honor" during an in-game interview over the weekend, I cannot help echoing Girardi's thought and expanding it for all of 2016. Masahiro Tanaka needs to show us something.

There is expectation that Tanaka is an ace...a top gun...an elite starter in the American League. The reality is that Tanaka has not been that guy since June 28, 2014. There have been stretches on the disabled list, concerns about his elbow--and most importantly--middle of the road pitching ever since that complete game loss to the Red Sox.

At this point, you can forget about the elbow. Yes, it might explode any time. But that can be said of every pitcher in baseball. He says he has been fine and so has everyone else. But his pitching has not been that fine..It has been adequate. For starters with at least 150 innings in 2015, Tanaka finished 57th in fWAR and 54th in FIP. That compares closest to Mike Pelfrey. Mike Pelfrey.

My observation is that it all starts with the fastball. So that is where I started when looking up data. I have no problem acknowledging that Tanaka has a devastating split finger pitch. But that pitch is most effective when set up by other pitches, especially the fastball. According to Fangraphs.com, Masahiro Tanaka's fastball rated 86th in baseball last year. To get a full gauge on that placement, 87 pitchers were rated as having thrown 150+ innings. The only fastball that was rated lower in baseball last year was Jered Weaver who throws his fastball these days at about pony league speed.

To make sure I wasn't being overly jaded here, I went further with those numbers. Fangraphs tends to lump all fastballs together including two-seam, four-seam, sinkers and cut fastballs. Using PitchF/X, they rate Tanaka's four-seam fastball as 82nd out of 87. That's not much better. According to PitchF/X, Tanaka also throws a sinker and that pitch was rated 15th. BUT, only twenty pitchers throw a sinker.

The bottom line is that Tanaka's fastball has become somewhat akin to Phil Hughes' when Hughes was starting for the Yankees. And it shows because either Tanaka has become more loathe to use the pitch or McCann is more loathe to call it. Again, according to Fangraphs, Tanaka's total fastballs as a percentage of his pitches went down in 2015 to 32.5%, eight percentage points lower than the year before. According to PitchF/X, only twelve pitchers with 150 or more innings threw less fastballs as a percentage than Tanaka.

I need other, more talented writers on this staff to look at spin rates, zone charts and the like to see if location is a problem or a lack of spin and movement. The only thing I see is that his fastball often gets crushed on the batter's sweet spot. That would lead to more homers and indeed, Tanaka's rate rose last year from 0.99 per nine innings in 2014 to 1.46 per nine.

It should also be noted that Tanaka's strikeout rate went down from 26% in 2014 to 22% in 2015. Without an effective fastball, it is harder to set up the split ahead in the count. It also might account for a slight rise in walk rate if Tanaka does not have confidence in the pitch.

Projection systems don't see a big improvement in 2016. Of the four I checked, only one was optimistic that Tanaka's 2016 will be better than his 2015. Time will tell. But I am inclined to agree.

Many fans and analysts point to CC Sabathia as being the weak link and the worry in the Yankees' rotation and rightly so. In my mind, Masahiro Tanaka is in the same category and is a part of the rotation that is causing me some serious doubt.

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Quick Hit: The Yankees and the Various Projection Systems

With PECOTA Day in the rear-view mirror, all of the major projection systems have now been released. In order to ease the digestion process, I felt it would make sense to compile the most oft-cited of the bunch (that also happen to be the most accessible) into an easy to read chart. I utilized the 25-man roster proffered by Brad, and stuck with rate statistics as the playing time estimates for several of the players is all over the place. I went with the slash line for hitters, and ERA and K/BB for pitchers (I would have preferred FIP, but it isn't released for all projections). Without further ado:


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New Kids on the Block: Offensive Prospects’ Likely 2016 Impact

Baseball America’s new top prospect list for the Yankees isn’t inspiring, but that’s partly because many 2015 prospects (Severino, Bird, Williams, Heathcott…) no longer qualify as “prospects”; they’ve arrived. While Severino is definitely a rotation starter, a bunch of offensive prospects have less clear 2016 roles. So here’s my take on the likely role, or lack of role, of the Yankees’ ready(ish) offensive prospects. Feel free to disagree in the comments! This is all more art than science, but it’s interesting and fun to think through who’s ready, and who has an actual opening, to be part of the team for the next 5-10 years. First, an easy one: Gary Sanchez’s strong AAA performance, and the Murphy trade, make his 2016 role obvious. Absent a February 2016 DWI in Tampa that dislocates his throwing shoulder, he’ll back up Brian McCann. McCann's second-half fade in 2015 (.802 OPS, then .701) may be bad luck, or a sign that it’s not bright to expect more than 120ish games out of a 32 year-old catcher, even if he suffers no DL-stint injury.

Greg Bird’s 46-game debut and ~.850 AA/AAA OPS confirmed Yoda's diagnosis, “no more training do you require.” The problem is where he plays, given Mark Teixeira at 1B and Alex Rodriguez at DH. But A-Rod wore down after July despite only DH'ing, and Teixeira, who turns 36, hasn’t played over 123 games in five years. So Bird easily could start 50 games at 1B and 20 at DH. He also has value as a late-innings 1B defensive replacement -- not that Bird beats Teixeira defensively, but if the team is up 5+ runs by the seventh, why not give the brittle Teixeira a mini-break?

Rob Refsnyder should be … yeah, I got nothing. At first blush, he looks similarly ready-but-blocked to Bird – but Ref is more blocked and, um, worse. NEw 2B Starlin Castro is just one year older (that surprised me!), and his four remaining contract years are more of a barrier to Ref than Teixeira’s one remaining year is to Bird. Blockage aside, I was on the Ref bandwagon a year ago, but that wagon ran into the ditch with Ref’s lack of enough defensive development (he still looked bad in late 2015) and his backslid bat (.271 in his second AAA go-round, with little power). At this point, Ref’s realistic ceiling is an average bat and a slightly below-average 2B, with some utilityman flexibility to play corner outfield. His problem is that the Yankees have that exact profile in Dustin Ackley, who’s more likely to perform at that level: he’s already OK at 2B and a league-average big-league hitter. If Ref can nab anything in a trade, that’s sadly his most valuable use now.

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MLBTR's Top 50 Free Agents List And Predictions

With free agents now able to sign with any team and the GM meetings starting up today, the timing couldn't be better for MLB Trade Rumors to post their annual top 50 free agents list and predictions for where all of those free agents will sign and for how much. The entire list and write-up on each player can be found here, but for Yankee-centric purposes here's what you need to know.  MLBTR predicts the Yankees will sign Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, and Chris Young (the outfielder).

Heyward is their #2 free agent and MLBTR predicts a 10-year/$200 million deal.  That dollar amount seems a little light to me and the years seems longer than the Yankees would be willing to go, but if that deal comes with an opt-out clause, maybe that would inspire the Yankees to pursue a longer deal if they were OK with the dollars.  Zobrist comes in at #21 and is projected to get a 3-year/$51 million deal.  Not sure how I'd feel about that.  Young is #46 and MLTR predicts 2 years and $12 mil for him.  I'd let him walk for multiple years.  Sell high on Young if he's looking to cash in on his 2015.

I don't have a hard time seeing the Yankees signing any one of these three, or even signing Zobrist and re-signing Young, but I have a real hard time seeing them sign all 3 this offseason.  Especially not at those prices.  The big money isn't going to be spent again until more big money comes off, and that isn't happening until next offseason.  If all 3 do sign, however, that has to make the Yankees a favorite in the AL next year.

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Early Steamer Projections For The 2016 Yankees

FanGraphs has the early Steamer600 projections up for next year.  While it's admittedly way too early to start thinking about 2016 projections, what with rosters set to be shaken up significantly over the course of the upcoming offseason, it is something to talk about if your team has been long eliminated from postseason contention like the Yankees have. You can comb through the entire batch here.  FG has the whole list tabbed out by team for easy navigation, but here's the link to the Yankees section.  Some highlights:

- Greg Bird is projected to be the best hitter on the Yankees next year by a wide margin.  .266/.341/.486 with 29 HR, a .356 wOBA, and 125 wRC+.  That would be amazing.

- Mark Teixeira's projected line: .231/.324/.443 with 29 HR.  Big drop off from the .255/.357/.548 of 2015.

- The player projected to be the 3rd best hitter on the team isn't even in the organization anymore.  That'd be Ramon Flores at .268/.335/.416, although I'm not sure how he's going to come close to that coming back from his bad ankle injury in August.

- Rob Refsnyder's projected line: .268/.334/.409 with 30 2B, 14 HR, and 11 SB.  I'd sign up for that in a millisecond.

- A-Rod's projected line: .239/.331/.402 with 21 HR.  I think I would have signed up for that before the start of this past season.

- Steamer really likes Masahio Tanaka and Michael Pineda next year, projecting 4-WAR seasons and ERAs in the low 3's for both.  Of course, that's projected over 200 IP, which neither guy is a lock to pitch.

- Steamer also like Luis Severino, projecting a 3.90 ERA and 178 strikeouts over 200 IP.  That would give the Yankees a solid #3 starter if Tanaka and Pineda can be the 1 and 2.

- Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte still project to be better than the rest of the expected Yankee rotation.  I doubt there's even the slightest chance of it happening, but I'd totally sign Hirok to a 1-year deal if he wanted to come back next season.

If there's anything else that stood out to you, feel free to share in the comments.  I don't think there's anything in here that can or should be taken as gospel, they are just rough projections.  But if your brain is already turning thinking about what the Yankees need to do to get better next year, this is good conversation fodder.

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Projecting Chase Headley in the Second Half

Chase During the Yankees' off season (after the 2014 season), I did not want the Yankees to get all crazy signing free agents. But the one signing I coveted was Chase Headley. And then time seemed to drag on until December and the Yankees reeled him in at a fairly modest three-year deal. I was very excited. After a very successful Spring Training, I even picked him for my fantasy team. Flash forward to the All Star Break and Chase Headley has been worth -2.9 runs at the plate and -1 run in the field. What the heck happened to Chase Headley!? And what will he offer in the second half?

The reason for being excited about the December signing was that he was solid at the plate in his late stint with the Yankees in 2014 and was spectacular in the field. Headley's play at third has been disappointing to say the least in 2015 and his offense at the plate is very reminiscent to what he was like for the Padres in 2014 before the trade.

Let's start with the fielding. Most people are focusing on Headly's throwing and it has indeed been a struggle. He has made seven errors on throws and there would have been countless more without Mark Teixeira's scooping ability at first. To me, he looks tentative on his throws as if he is trying to be perfect instead of just letting it fly. The throwing problem is either mental like a mild case of yips or there might be some injury that we don't know about. I have long assumed the latter. But in either case he has already tied his career high for throwing errors and we have two and a half months of the season to go.

We cannot focus just on the throwing. Headley has also made nine errors catching the ball. That also ties a career high with a lot of the season left to go. Headley has already topped his career high for errors in a season. Headley's play at third this season has been baffling.

Chase Headley's offense (or lack of it) would be a bigger story thus far in 2015 if other regulars such as Stephen Drew and Didi Gregorius hadn't been worse. Headley's wRC+ (and/or OPS+) sits at 89. Average is 100. Last year with the Yankees he was at 117. But before that with the Padres, he was swimming in wet sand at 88. The question seems to have become: Which part of his 2014 season was a fluke, the Padres part or the Yankees part?

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Are the Yankees the Best Team in the American League?

The Yankees are 33-25, tying them with Houston, Minnesota and Kansas City for the best record on the American League. The Yankees have been on top of the AL East for most of the season, but this is the first time that they are on top of the whole American League. They've scored 271 runs (4.67 per game) and allowed 236 (4.07 per game), giving them a perfectly-matched 33-25 pythagorean record. Despite a killer back end of the bullpen, they are just 8-8 in one-run games. They've had key players (Ellsbury, Tanaka), miss a lot of time. Arod and Teixeira might come down to earth, but there is no evidence that the Yankees are just getting lucky to start the season.

Are they the best team in the American League? Let's compare them to the teams they are tied with:

Houston Astros (34-26, 4.13 RS/G, 3.90 RA/G, 11-8 in 1-run games, 32-28 Expected)

I don't buy the Astros. They got off to a great start, mostly by hitting a lot of home runs. But over time, the home runs died down a bit, and their high-strikeout, low-OBP offense got exposed pretty quickly. Other than Jose Altuve (hitting just .295/.335/.402), the highest-average hitter on their roster is the stone cold Jake Marisnick. Chris Carter is terrible. George Springer is overexposed. They're playing Luis Valbuena at 3rd base. These guys aren't bad, but there is a limit to how good a team is going to hit with a 25.1% strikeout rate. The Yankees, for reference, are an above-average 19% this season.

That doesn't mean the Astros are all bad. Dallas Keuchel and their bullpen are great. They do hit home runs. They did just promote Lance McCullers and Carlos Correa, who are excellent prospects and could be star-level players pretty quickly. They have further reinforcements at Triple-A in Jon Singleton and Domingo Santana, and plenty of money to bring in a big contract at the deadline. But I'm not convinced that the base they're building on top of is much more than a .500 team.

Verdict: The Yankees are better

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So What's The Deal With Garrett Jones?

[caption id="attachment_72087" align="aligncenter" width="575"]Jones vs COL 2014 Courtesy of Getty Images[/caption] I mean honestly, what's the deal with this guy?  He's a right fielder who can't play right field, he's a first baseman who can't play first base.  What's up with that?  He's got no first names and 2 last names.  He doesn't know who he is or what he's doing.  I don't get it.

That's funnier if you read it in Jerry Seinfeld's voice in your head, but in all seriousness, I am somewhat intrigued by Garrett Jones' presence on the roster and what his eventual role on this team might become.  A commenter in the ZiPS post pointed out that ZiPS was actually pretty high on him, something I completely glossed over when I first read through the projection numbers, and there's some truth to that.  ZiPS doesn't see much in the way of average or OBP for Jones, but it does project a healthy .449 SLG and 21 home runs.

That kind of production would be very welcome from the DH spot, the most likely lineup destination for Jones and one of the areas of biggest offensive weakness for the Yankees over the last 2 seasons.  ZiPS' numbers for Jones were based on a 471-plate appearance sample, which he likely won't approach as a platoon DH, but that slugging percentage and a .209 ISO would still be plenty of thump in the role.  Scale the PA down to reflect a part-time role and you get something like what Steamer is projecting: .250/.311/.448, 14 HR, .198 ISO in 342 PA.

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Quick Hit: FanGraphs Releases ZiPS Projections For 2015 Yankees

Now that rosters have been mostly set and prospects have been ranked, the next step on the march towards pitchers and catchers reporting is the release of 2015 projections.  Earlier this morning, Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections for the Yankees were released over at FanGraphs.  It's a mixed bag of good and bad if you're the kind of person who values projections in any way, and I invite everybody to read through the whole post when you have the time. If you're just looking for the highlights, here they are.  ZiPS is high on Chase Headley, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brian McCann, projecting all of them to outperform their 2014 slash lines.  It's also somewhat optimistic about Mark Teixeira, pegging him for a .332 wOBA, albeit in just 377 plate appearances.  A handful of rookies also got favorable WAR projections, most notably Luis Severino, Jose Pirela, Rob Refsnyder, and Aaron Judge.

The pitching, on the other hand, was mostly lowlights.  No starter is projected to throw more than 167 innings, the 2nd-highest WAR projection is for Hiroki Kuroda, who's no longer playing in New York, and Dellin Betances is the next highest after Kuroda and Masahiro Tanaka.  If you're expecting the rotation to suffer because of injuries this year, this is probably what it's going to look like: a lot of missed starts, a lot of extra relief innings, and a lot of Matt Tracy, Bryan Mitchell, and Scott Baker getting their teeth kicked in.  ZiPs is pretty optimistic about Ivan Nova's return from TJS though, so there's that.

P.S.- You can thank me for making sure Baker got included in the projections.  Szymborski was going to leave him out, which is egregious.  You never count out a wildcard like Scott Baker.

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Blood from a Stone, or Just What Can We Expect from Mr. Rodriguez?

The last time we saw Alex Rodriguez playing Major League Baseball, he was performing quite well, batting .244/.348/.423 with 7 HR and a 113 wRC+ across 181 PA. That is, of course, well below the lofty standards set by his career as a whole, and a rather unattractive slash line in the context of the era - but I would also suggest that it was fairly encouraging. At 38-years-old, with two surgically repaired hips and a surgically repaired right knee, Rodriguez managed to be an above-average hitter over what amounts to a quarter of a season. If you cocked your head and squinted a bit, things were looking up for Rodriguez, as he prepared for the upcoming season. But that was 2013, and 'the upcoming season' ended up being 'TBA.' And ... well, you know the rest. As of this writing, it has been 488 days since Rodriguez played professional baseball. By the time the Yankees suit-up for their first Spring Training game in March, it will have been one year, five months, one week, and three days since the last time Rodriguez donned pinstripes - and that's assuming he plays some role in that game. It's difficult to project players along an aging curve to begin with, and that is particularly true for historically great ones. Factor in a season away from the game, and sixteen or seventeen months away from the team's training facilities and staff, and we have an anomalous wrinkle to deal with. So we'll just have to make do.

On one hand, we can look at what actual projection systems foresee for Rodriguez. Steamer, for example, projects a .235/.317/.382 slash line with 14 HR over 94 games - good for a 96 wRC+. That mark was bested by only seven Yankees last season (minimum of 100 PA), three of which (Martin Prado, Francisco Cervelli, and Yangervis Solarte) are no longer with the team. There are three returning starters who finished with a lesser wRC+ (Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Stephen Drew); newcomer Didi Gregorius is in that group, as well.

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