SSTN Not The Weekly Mailbag: A Jumble Of Thoughts
Wow...where to start, and where to finish? I'm a broken record talking about this team, and we're not even through June! This is a team that almost seems incapable of losing; in fact, it's far more surprising when they lose than it is when they win. Last night's game is a perfect example of that feeling. Jameson Taillon just didn't have it, unable to miss bats and generally depending on some help from his friends in the field to bail him out. Taillon gave up 6 runs in 5.2 innings, throwing just 90 pitches in the process, an indication of just how frequently the Astros managed to make contact off of him. But you know what? Taillon battled, looking at Boone in the dugout between innings 5 and 6 to say that he was good for another inning, because he just wouldn't give up on his guys. Even better? You knew that the offense wouldn't give up around him. The bullpen rallied behind their guy, and even when the situation looked bleak, I actually expected someone to come up clutch and win the game for the Yanks. Lo and behold, that's exactly what happened. Aaron Hicks (more on him in a minute) finally broke through with a good at-bat in a pitcher's count to tie the game with a 3-run homer in the bottom of the 9th, Jose Trevino continues to find a way to get on-base when it counts, and Aaron Judge did Aaron Judge things to win the game. It just keeps happening this way. The Yanks are playing the toughest stretch of their season thus far...and are 12-2 since June 9th. This series with the Houston Astros looks almost feels like a playoff series, and the Yanks have struck a fascinating first blow. Personally, I get one of my dream matchups tonight with Sevy facing off against Verlander in the Bronx. I can't wait.
As always, thanks for the great questions and keep them coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. We had a couple of good questions for this week's SSTN Mailbag, but I've got a bunch of things I've been thinking about lately, and this seems like a good time during the season for a thoughts post. I'll save the questions I was going to use this week for next week, but please keep the questions coming (particularly if you've never participated before)! Without any further ado let's talk about a variety of topics facing the Yankees today:
I talked about it on the Start Spreading The News Youtube Show this past week, but I think that it's critical that we recognize the success of the pitching staff in 2022 in full context. The individual players deserve a ton of credit, as they're the ones out there maximizing their ability each time they take the hill. The Yankees' pitching staff has been worth 11.4 fWAR thus far in 2022, close to 1 win ahead of the next closest team (Atlanta). They throw harder than anyone else, with a 95.1 MPH average fastball velocity. Even after last night's game, they are tied for the best ERA in the sport with a 2.90 ERA. That doesn't appear to be a fluke either, as they rank first in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) as well at 3.32, which measures ERA while isolating for elements out of a pitcher's control. I saw this coming, predicting that the Yankees would have a top-5 pitching staff in the sport in 2022, but it wasn't just the roster that had me bullish. Yankee Pitching Coach, Matt Blake, gets a ton of press for the job he's done with this pitching staff, and rightfully so, but Blake is not the only guy making things happen. Brian Cashman recognized that something needed to change in 2019, and in June he hired Yankees' Director of Pitching, Sam Briend, away from Driveline Baseball to evaluate the Yankees' current pitching development practices and make recommendations for their improvement. Briend's hiring foreshadowed the removal of some of the old guard, like Larry Rothschild, the hiring of some new blood, and the arrival of new development tactics. Matt Blake's hiring received a ton of press, but Desi Druschel, "The Pitch Design Guy," was hired in 2020 as well to overhaul minor league development processes and evaluate the pitching repertoires of all Yankee pitchers. Druschel is part of the brain trust that established "The Gas Station" down at Tampa a couple of years ago to help measure everything that happened in a pitcher's delivery and during the ball's flight to the catcher. Change doesn't happen overnight, but pitchers up and down the Yankee system have seen multi-grade improvements in the last two years, and much of it is due to the work people like Druschel have put in. In 2022, we've seen the fruits of that labor at the Major League level in particular due to the tweaks Yankee big league pitchers have made to their arsenals. We've heard a lot about the new "whirly" slider that many Yankees, exemplified best by Mike King, are throwing, but the changes are even more apparent in the starting rotation:
Luis Severino was a 3-pitch pitcher at his peak in 2017-2018, utilizing a four-seamer, an under-utilized change-up, and a relatively hard slider. This season, he has split that slider into two pitches: a slightly softer slider with more tilt and depth, and a pitch that Statcast calls a cutter at around 90 MPH (I'll quibble with that description and say that the harder pitch is actually a short slider, given that Sevy likes to spot the pitch low and away to righties, and front-door to lefties). This separation has opened up opportunities for Sevy's change-up and keeps hitters off of Sevy's fastball up in the zone. While Sevy attacks the zone in a similar way to his peak, pitch design has given him a more varied look.
Jameson Taillon had previously favored a sinker prior to his trade to the Yankees, and featured a four-seamer last season. This season, Taillon is using both pitches to mix and match looks in the zone, and he's modified the shape on his curve and slider, making both pitches more effective.
Jordan Montgomery has leaned even further into the soft contact he generates, trading in four-seamers for sinkers.
Nestor Cortes Jr. never threw a cutter prior to 2021, a pitch over which Nestor has shown great command and whose shape/velocity he seems to be able to vary by situation. More than anything else Nasty Nestor has done, the development of the cutter is the reason he's been so effective since rejoining the Yankees.
Even Gerrit Cole has added a cutter to his already impressive arsenal. While he probably deferred to the pitch too frequently early in the season, it gives him another look when hitters are sitting on his four-seamer.
Kudos to Cashman and crew for recognizing the need to modernize, for acquiring pitchers that would fit the mold the new pitching coaching staff needed, and to the coaches for implementing procedures that have had such immediately positive results. The Yankees have depth down in the minors now, and seem poised to churn out reliable pitching at least for the next couple of seasons.
Which of these lines is not like the others: .306/.426/.367, 138 OPS+; .127/.253/.141, 16 OPS+; and .300/.391/.450, 133 OPS+? Obviously, the 2nd batting line stands out like a sore thumb, while the other two batting lines are very similar in total value. I will also tell you that the sample sizes for all three are very similar. The first batting line is Aaron Hicks in April; the second is Aaron Hicks in May; and the third is Aaron Hicks in June. It is beginning to look like Hicks' terrible May is a significant outlier. I've been quietly preaching patience on Hicks, and the Yankees have seemingly agreed...it's beginning to pay off. Hicks' at-bats have been significantly better lately, and he's beginning to finally make hard contact again. Wrist injuries are tough, and it takes a lot of time to regain strength even after the injury is "healed." That's what Hicks is going through. Hicks can still be valuable even if he doesn't hit for a ton of power. Hicks runs well, including on the bases; he gets on-base even when he's not hitting particularly well, and that on-base percentage bumps to an elite level when he is making contact; and he appears to be a very good defensive left fielder now that Judge seems to be manning CF close to full time (Statcast's Outs Above Average metric appears to agree, grading Hicks as a plus left fielder and a below-average center fielder). I loved watching Hicks tie the game last night with a big homer, and he's in the thick of it far more frequently lately.
By the same token, while Joey Gallo has been better in June, his numbers are buoyed by a short homer spurt earlier this month. He looks significantly more comfortable defensively in right field since the outfield realignment, but it's tough waiting for one of Gallo's patented hot streaks to which fans in Texas became accustomed. I'm not sure the Bronx is the right fit for Gallo, but the rest of the team is playing well enough that he still has some time to figure it out...but the clock is ticking.
Jose Trevino...do I even need to say anything? I was about to publish a post about Trevino's offensive improvement, including digging into the changes in his batting stance and how those changes have impacted his hitting position at the point of contact...but Derek Albin at Views From 314ft beat me to it. He's fantastic defensively, calls a great game behind the plate, and I think his offensive performance is close to for real...at the very least, I think his floor is a slightly below-average offensive performer, which makes him a very valuable starting catcher. I never expected to say that this year. I really wanted a catcher at the trade deadline this year, but now I'm not so sure that makes sense, unless a good deal falls into Cashman's lap.
I am still very curious to learn about what the Yankees have in Ben Rortvedt, who appears close to beginning his rehab stint down on the farm. I expect him to be optioned to AAA even when healthy, but there's more there than meets the eye. His defense was good enough to continue forcing promotions, even as his bat hadn't caught up to his defensive development. Catchers are often late bloomers offensively due to the developmental demands of catching, and there were some indications in Rortvedt's most recent minor league appearances that there was some feel to hit and untapped power from his powerful build. I'm not sure that Rortvedt will be a factor in 2022, but I think Kyle Higashioka's seat is getting warm, if not for this season, then next season.
The Yankees and Aaron Judge shouldn't be going to arbitration today. This is ridiculous nickel and diming on the team's part - just pay the man, regardless of how you feel about the numbers on an extension. Judge deserves the $21 million he's requested for this season, and it won't break the Yankees' bank to make it happen.
Is it me, or does Yankee Stadium actually sound loud again? It's great to turn on a game and actually hear the fans.
At the trade deadline, look for the Yankees to be on the hunt for a relief arm and possibly an outfielder. I'm not sure the Yankees will be hunting for a starting outfielder (it really depends on what happens with Gallo), but I am sure the Yankees will look to acquire a reliever. A reunion with David Robertson is starting to look like a mighty fine idea.
The constant walk-offs are beginning to remind me of the 2009 team.
I'm in the process of writing a handful of posts that will show up on the site in the next couple of weeks. Here's what's coming:
Digging deeper into Matt Carpenter's performance this year and looking for a possible caveat.
Evaluating Jasson Dominguez's performance.
Digging into a prospect who looks like they're about to explode (in a good way).
Managing the bullpen for the rest of the year.
Trending the correlation between exit velocity and this season's Yankees' offensive performance.
3 prospects up, 3 prospects down
Finding prospect help in the 2nd half
Those are some of the things I've been thinking about lately. Again, the regularly scheduled SSTN Mailbag will be back next week, so keep the questions coming. As always, thanks for reading, and let's hope for a sweep against a team that deserves to be swept like no other.