SSTN Mailbag: Wells, King, And Cole In Context!
We're nearing the end, folks. For me, Dominguez's season-ending elbow injury popped my Yankee balloon a bit. I'm still watching the games, and interested to watch how certain players perform, but I'd be lying if I told you that I'm watching quite as intensely as I do normally. Want to know what's popped that balloon even further? The recognition that Everson Pereira hasn't played now in what amounts to the majority of an IL stint, yet he remains a dead plank on the bench. The Yankees have now played shorthanded for close to 10 days. How is this productive? It isn't, but it is instructive. The Yankees have professed a desire to take a deep dive to evaluate changes that are needed. Some needed changes are smacking them right in the face, yet they refuse to change. The Pereira scenario is case-and-point. He's a top prospect that the team wants to evaluate in MLB action, but even if he came back tomorrow, he'll pretty clearly be playing beneath full strength - what would you really be evaluating? Oh, and they're stretching an already taxed roster further by keeping him off of the IL. Right now, all I see is a lot of the same, and it is incredibly disheartening.
That said, we still have some of the kids to watch, and that's cool. We get to see if Wells will hit enough to make up for his defense and if Oswaldo Cabrera's mechanical revamp has any promise. That's worth watching.
As always, thanks for the great questions and keep them coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. In this week's SSTN Mailbag, we'll evaluate the early returns on Austin Wells, revisit Mike King's quest to become a starting pitcher, and take a look at Gerrit Cole's Cy Young season in-context! Let's get at it:
Brian asks: We've now been able to watch Austin Wells for a few weeks behind the plate. I know that you have been saying that he's not a catcher long-term, but have you seen anything to change your mind? Also, I know he hasn't hit much, but what do you think of his bat?
First off, congratulations to Austin Wells on hitting his first MLB homer the other night! It was a classic left-handed swing on a hanger up in the zone, and Wells punished it. It's what you expect someone who looks like Wells and swings like Wells to do at Yankee Stadium 25+ times per year at maturity. I wanted to start with the positive, so we'll start with part two of Brian's question. Despite his offensive struggles in his first few weeks of MLB action, I strongly believe that Wells will be an above-average hitter in the aggregate. He'll draw a decent number of walks, show gap-to-gap power that will also translate to homers, though I don't expect he'll ever post much more than a .240-.250 batting average. In the current offensive environment, I think peak-Austin Wells might have a few seasons where he posts lines that look something like this: .245/.340/.480, 27 HR. That's a really good offensive player! It's elite if he's a catcher...
...and now we get to the bad news. I have read a lot of people (both here and elsewhere) write that they've been pleasantly surprised by Wells' defense behind the plate. I haven't seen his play back there the same way. On the plus side, he clearly gets the non-physical stuff right: he seems to communicate well to pitchers, and veteran pitchers have publicly praised his gameplanning and ability to communicate in-game. That's huge, as there are much more physically talented catchers who never quite get that part of the game. That's an intangible that works in Wells' favor.
However, I see nothing positive in the physically obvious bits of Wells' catching. He is a large body behind the plate, and his reactions are very slow. With a staff that made him work a little more, I suspect he'd allow at least as many passed balls as Gary Sanchez did pre-2021. You could almost take that if Wells were an elite pitch framer, but he certainly isn't that either. The eye test tells me that he frequently makes harsh stabs at the ball, which leads to losing strike calls. I hardly trust defensive statistics in small sample sizes, but Statcast agrees with my assessment on both Wells' blocking and framing. To make matters worse, while praise was heaped on Wells because he caught a guy stealing in his first attempt against Houston, I don't see a viable arm behind the plate. While it appears stronger than Trevino's arm (one of the weakest in baseball), his average velocity on throws to 2B doesn't break 80 MPH.
In short, I think Wells will be a viable MLB hitter, but I don't see anything more than a part-time catcher from a physical skills standpoint. Maybe Wells can improve more, but I think it is important that the Yankees expose Wells to the outfield and first base in the off-season (positions he played in college and at the Cape League) so that he's prepared to play both at a professional level next season in addition to catcher.
Fuster asks: is he king of the pen
or does he appear as though he could be a legit starter in 2024
should they need a starter?
I have long opined that King should stay in the bullpen; we know he's one of the most valuable relievers in baseball, and I worry about his style of pitching holding up over the course of 150+ innings, both physically and in his ability to turn a lineup over more than twice. I think that I have to admit that I'm wrong about at least part of this equation.
King has been nothing short of electric as a starter since his full conversion at the end of August. Here are his numbers in his first 5 real starts:
25.2 IP, 23 H, 2 BB, 39 K, 1.40 ERA, .240/.253/.292, .397 BABIP
If anything, King has gotten a bit unlucky, as he's given up an inordinate amount of soft contact singles in his first few starts. His last start was his best work, giving the business to a playoff-caliber Toronto lineup, striking out 13 batters in 7 innings. King has mixed and matched both a 4-seam fastball and a 2-seam fastball to both change hitters' eye line and keep them guessing. His slider remains every bit as dangerous against right-handed hitting, and the change-up he seldom uses as a reliever appears perfectly viable as a starter. Most importantly, his stuff appears to be holding well past 80 pitches.
I think Mike King has proven that he is at least the second-best pitcher on the Yankee staff. I was wrong about the ability of his stuff to play as a premium starting pitcher; I expected his stuff to backup enough to make him more of a back-end starter, but he's been incredibly impressive. This is a big IF, but I'm willing to dream of a top-4 starting rotation next season of the following:
Yoshinobu Yamamoto (the Yanks appear to be ready to back up a Brinks truck, as the whole organization has been to Japan to watch him pitch)
Nestor Cortes Jr. (if healthy)
That would be quite a starting pitching staff! Of course, it depends on a free agent acquisition and a healthy Nestor Cortes, which is asking for a lot, but you can squint and get excited!
To put it bluntly: the Yanks should pencil King into the rotation next year, even for 150 innings. He's been that good, and he's earned the shot.
Mike asks: Can you put Gerrit Cole's performance this season in context? How does it compare to other great Yankee pitching performances?
That's a fun one! I'm not going to strictly use statistics here, and I'm also going to disappoint many of our readers: I am only going to compare it to seasons which I've been alive to see. So, while I know Ron Guidry had some incredible seasons that I rank highly purely on statistical analysis, I don't have the same connection to it.
In my memory, there are only two pitching performances I put above Cole's in pinstripes: Andy Pettitte in 1997 and Mike Mussina in 2001. Those were two of the best pitching performances I've ever seen over a full season, and I didn't think either pitcher got enough credit (Pettitte ran into an otherworldly season by Roger Clemens in Toronto, while Mussina got eclipsed by Clemens as well when they were teammates, though voters were more impressed by a 20-3 record that was a little less great when you looked under the hood). My gut and my heart cause me to pick those seasons over Gerrit Cole's 2023, though Cole has been fantastic.
For me, Cole's season is probably the 3rd best Yankee pitching season in my lifetime, but I could be missing one from the early part of the last decade.