SSTN Mailbag: Pitch Clock, Best Case/Worst Case at SS/2B, And Stand Outs!
Almost a full week of Spring Training is in the books! Even if I don't watch the games with the same devotion or ferocity that I do during the regular season and playoffs, I just feel good knowing that baseball is back. As exciting as Spring Training is, it is really important to remember that bottom-line statistics are not particularly important or predictive during March...unless, of course, they are. While it is true that the statistics we typically weight are not generally important during Spring Training, that doesn't mean that Spring Training is meaningless. I care that players maintain health in Spring Training; I care that pitchers are built up properly for the season; I care that players are in generally good shape (regardless of whether they are in the, "best shape of their lives"); I am fascinated and informed by watching prospects play alongside and against good MLB talent; I evaluate players with new pitches, obvious new or diminished skillsets, or those who are testing new mechanics; and I compare players on the depth chart by the eye test. Spring Training may seem like it is all fun and games, and relatively meaningless, but digging below the surface yields a very different feeling. Spring Training statistics may be a mirage, but the actions that produce those results might be very important, indeed.
As always, thanks for the great questions and keep them coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. In this week's SSTN Mailbag, we'll discuss early returns on the pitch clock, identify my idea of the best case and worst case scenarios for starters at SS and 2B on Opening Day, and identify some players who have stood out in both good ways and bad ways at Yankee camp thus far! Let's get at it:
Jerry asks: Of all of the rule changes hitting baseball this year, I am most interested in the pitch clock. So far, it seems like games are moving a lot faster, but it also seems ridiculous for a game to end with the batter called for a strikeout when he wasn't in the box fast enough. What do you think so far?
Most of you know that I was not particularly a proponent of the pitch clock. I agree that there was fat in a lot of the games in terms of dead time, but I also thought the rules on the books presented remedies to this issue. The rules already on the books prior to this season already stated that batters were to stand in the batters box at all times unless timeout was granted by the umpire. Merely enforcing that rule and limiting dead time between innings would have gone at least halfway towards accomplishing MLB's goals, in my humble estimation. Instead, MLB has imposed rather strict clocks between pitches, between batters, between innings...and likely for bathroom breaks, though I haven't looked quite that closely.
The rules are absolutely having a real effect, as game times are down by almost 20 minutes on average in Spring Training. Anecdotally, the pace of games seems significantly quicker as well. While the pitch clock has caused some not-so-fun moments, like the incident Jerry notes in his question, it's also led to some fun moments, including what transpired when the Yankees' own Wandy Peralta used the pitch clock to his advantage against the Pirates the other day:
I don't know it as fact, but 20 seconds has to be a record for a strikeout. I don't even remember anyone striking out that fast in a stickball game growing up. That batter was forced to keep stepping into the box quickly, and Peralta got himself ready to pitch immediately. I have to admit, I thought it was fun!
I very much walk the line between new-school/old-school in the way I think about the game. I very much enjoy digging into advanced statistics, ball flight data, and biomechanical analysis to evaluate player performance and mechanics, but I also love the idea of baseball as art. There's a game within a game when pitchers and hitters can step-off and mess with each other's timing, and while some of that will still happen with a pitch clock, I inherently love the idea of baseball as an untimed game. A professor in college once told me that a person's goal should be to lose track of time at least once per day, because that means that you were truly immersed in an activity. Baseball has always been one such pursuit for me, and the idea of a pitch clock is antithetical to that idea.
However, given MLB (and MLB's umpires) unwillingness to address the growing length of games with rules already on the books, the pitch clock is largely working better than I anticipated. The pace of games I have witnessed more closely matches the games I grew up with in the 90s, and I think that's good for the pro game.
Moving forward, I will be interested to see if pitchers hold their velocity as well through 5-7 innings without the additional seconds of recovery time (for those skeptical of the impact, I think it's similar to weight lifting - how many more reps can you do with a 30 second rest versus 90 seconds of rest?). I will also be interested to see if the pitch clock kills catcher signals to the pitcher once and for all across the league.
Otherwise, I think some of the oddities will go away over time, and the pitch clock will be okay long-term, even if it needs a bit of tweaking.
Brian S asks: A lot has been said about all of the infield combinations the Yankees could use this year - what's the best case scenario and the worst case scenario for SS/2B on Opening Day?
I think the worst case scenario is pretty obvious: the combination of Anthony Volpe/Oswald Peraza prove to not be ready for everyday roles, or worse, are hurt, and IKF begins the year as the starting SS. Additionally, one of Gleyber Torres or DJ LeMahieu is also hurt, so the Yankees suddenly seem very thin up the middle. Realistically, I don't expect that to be the case come Opening Day, but that's a not-impossible worst case scenario.
What's the best case scenario? The Yankees have a very difficult decision on their hands because both Peraza and Volpe are capable defensively at SS and ready to play Major League Baseball everyday. That's the best problem to have, because these things have a way of working themselves out. I have said numerous times that the Yankees need to determine Anthony Volpe's best position agnostic of who else is around. If Volpe is equally good at SS and 2B (whether that means average or more-so), then I am on record as saying he should be the SS, given that he is the higher caliber player/prospect. Need proof-of-concept for this idea? Carlos Correa was not the best defensive SS in the Astros' system; Alex Bregman was. Correa was considered the more premium player coming through the system, so that meant Correa was installed at SS while Bregman became a premium defensive 3B.
With the Bregman/Correa scenario in-mind, I think the best case scenario has Volpe and Peraza at SS/2B at whatever combination makes the most sense. If that means Peraza becomes an all-world 2B, so be it. If it means Peraza mans SS and Volpe becomes the 2B, that's okay also. Given that this is the best case scenario, I am admittedly surprised that we haven't heard anything about Gleyber Torres working at 3B. For all that the Yankees have talked about having versatile infielders from a defensive perspective, it is interesting to me that Torres is absent from this requirement. There is evidence that Gleyber has more than enough arm for 3B and good enough hands/range for the position. Flexibility is great, and the best case scenario involves the Yankees using all of their positional flexibility to their advantage if Volpe/Peraza are ready to be the double-play combination for the foreseeable future.
Pat asks: Have their been any players that stand out to you either positively or negatively so far in Spring Training?
Spring Training is only a week old, but I'll give you a few notes for now:
Deivi Garcia has had just about the most horrific two years of any pitching prospect in recent memory. If Yankee player development has failed anywhere, it's with Garcia. They messed with his mechanics to give him a whirly slider, and everything about Garcia changed thereafter. He lost his knee-buckling curve, velocity, the ability to control the baseball at all, and all of his confidence. It looked like he had no options remaining coming into Spring Training (though it was recently announced he has retained one more option for his stint at the complex in Tampa last year), I was very curious to see what he looked like. Much has been made about the seeming return of his velocity and his strike-throwing in his first Spring outing. Unfortunately, I'm not very confident based on what I saw. Garcia almost exclusively threw his fastball, with just a few sliders and cutters mixed in. Noticeably absent? His curve, which was his best pitch previously. I get that the Yankees are trying to help him grow confidence in his strike throwing by throwing mostly fastballs, but that very fact showS just how far his star has fallen. I loved Deivi Garcia as a prospect, but I think he might be too far gone.
The predominant opinion among baseball observers is that Anthony Volpe should go back to AAA for more seasoning. Volpe has other ideas. If you could draw up a roadmap for how Volpe forces the Yanks to take him North with the team at the end of March, this is the beginning of that roadmap. Volpe's instincts on the bases have been on display numerous times, as his ability to steal bases goes well beyond his pure speed. Volpe shows an ability to reach the entire strike zone with his bat, and his loud contact is very loud, homering off of Mitch Keller hanging slider up and out of the zone away to the pull side. I haven't seen much of Volpe in the field, but what little I've seen looks pretty good. I've said it once, and I'll say it again: I think Volpe is the rare prospect who could hang in the big leagues with just a cup of coffee at AAA.
Jasson Dominguez is a divisive prospect. Personally, I love him and have him as the Yankees' 2nd best prospect on my personal Top-15 Prospect list (yes, that's a hint: more to come on the prospect front on SSTN soon). However, that doesn't mean I am oblivious to some of his flaws. I much prefer his left-handed swing to his right-handed swing, and indeed his numbers from the left side have been far better throughout his minor league career. However, it looks as though he's working to close some of those holes. He has struggled to get to pitches up and away as a right-handed hitter and make impact contact. Dominguez's first Spring homer? Right-handed off of a 92 MPH fastball up and away. Everyone in Yankee camp raves about the kid. Nothing I've seen makes me think he'll be a bust.
I have not been as impressed by Everson Pereira. I think his bat is very geared towards particular parts of the zone. I hate to say it, but the swing reminds me of Dom Brown, who had one huge year before the league figured him out. Let's just say I have concerned about Pereira's obvious physical talents matching his performance at the MLB level.
I really like Oswald Peraza. I don't think he's a top-5 SS in MLB or anything, but I think he's going to produce a good, solid 10-year career. A guy who is average or slightly more, but just gets the job done.
Harrison Bader is going to prove doubters wrong. I'll stand by that until proven otherwise.
Jhony Brito is better than I expected. I think he might be the 5th starter by the end of the year.
Clarke Schmidt's new cutter is really good. I'm not sure it's the final piece of the puzzle against lefties, though. I still think Schmidt is better suited to multi-inning fireman work, but he's definitely a good pitcher if the Yankees utilize him properly.
By mid-season, I think Matt Krook will be the best lefty out of the Yankee bullpen.