SSTN Weekly Mailbag: Wade vs. Velazquez, Playoff Pitching Staff, and Yankee Pitching Development!
By Andy Singer
I’m beating a dead horse with the optimist bit, but as optimistic as I have remained about the 2021 Yankees, even I didn’t necessarily expect a 12-game winning streak. I could say something about regression to the mean; that the team was due to win some games that they should lose given that the lost so many that they should have won early in the year; that even if certain members of the lineup we projected in the offseason (DJLM, Luke Voit, Brett Gardner, etc.) were due for some regression, it was never going to be as bad as it was in the first half all season long; or that even with a bit of offensive bounce-back, the pitching staff was performing like one of the best in baseball even through the doldrums of June. I’m not going to get into any of that, though, because for all of the statistical analysis I could throw at you in this intro, I think it’s just too much fun to bask in the glory of a historic winning streak. This team has been flogged by media, fans, and casual observers alike for the majority of the season, so it just feels really good to watch this team win gobs of games. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.
As always thanks for the great questions, and keep them coming to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. In this week’s SSTN Mailbag, we’ll debate the relative merits of Tyler Wade vs. Andrew Velazquez, dig into the playoff pitching staff, and discuss some pitching improvements! Let’s get at it:
Aaron asks: It looks like the Yankees’ lineup is getting closer to being at full strength with Urshela coming back and Torres looking close so I don’t think there’s room for both Wade and Velazquez on the roster. Who do you take the hometown kid from the Bronx or the veteran?
It feels really strange to see Wade described as a veteran, but that’s a fair description at this point. There is little question but that Velazquez has been one of the better stories in the Yankee Universe during this long stretch of winning baseball. Velazquez was signed to be little more than depth in the minor leagues this season, and due to the proliferation of injuries at the Major League level, he’s received more playing time with the Yankees than I’m sure anyone could have expected. The fact that we’re even having this conversation is remarkable, because Velazquez has exceeded every expectation I ever had for his performance.
Those of you who have been around here for years know that I’ve been waiting for a Tyler Wade breakout since he was in AA…until recently, I was still waiting, but as he’s gained more playing time, Wade has proven to be a capable defender all over the field while producing good at-bats with excellent speed and baserunning. Want an example of the extra dimension Wade brings to the lineup? After losing a 6-0 lead in last night’s game, the Yanks found themselves tied at 6 apiece with the A’s with 2 outs in the top of the 9th. Tyler Wade had reached first base with Aaron Judge at the plate, and he made an aggressive steal attempt. Wade didn’t time the steal perfectly, but he’s so fast that it forced the catcher to sail the throw high before he could fully gather his body, and Wade raced to 3rd base as the ball rolled to the centerfielder. On the next pitch, Judge flared one to right-center, and Wade scored easily. Judge’s hit was clutch, but the Yankees won last night’s game because of Tyler Wade.
I said this on the Bronx Beat Podcast last night (and yes, I do fully expect to see pitchforks coming my way from the Bronx as I say this), but as great a story as Velazquez has been, I really don’t see the justification for giving him playing time over Tyler Wade right now, so when the lineup fills up again, I’m all-in on Tyler Wade as the Swiss army knife off the bench. Wade has always had the potential to be a second-division regular at SS, and he looks like he’s finally fulfilling that potential. To have a guy like that as a utility speedster off the bench is a luxury the Yankees should use to their full advantage.
Tommy asks: If the playoffs started tomorrow and you were building a playoff pitching staff for the Yankees, who’s on the roster and who’s off?
Luckily, the playoffs don’t start tomorrow, because I’m still holding out hope that Sevy and Kluber can get back to good health by the end of September. In the spirit of this question though, I’ll provide an answer with both Kluber and Sevy on the roster and one without either player.
Let’s start with a roster that has both Kluber and Severino, and I’m going to make some assumptions. First, I have a hard time believing that Severino can still be built up as a starter even if he gets back to good health in the next week or two. Building to 60-ish pitches is a possibility, but I don’t think he can get much more than that. Secondly, a roster that has multiple guys returning from injury and one or two “five and dive” starting pitchers will require a couple of bulk relievers. Lastly, we’re going to assume that 3-4 starting pitchers, and 12 pitchers total is enough for a short series. With all of that in mind, here’s the playoff pitching staff with Sevy and Kluber:
SP4: Tandem (Pick 2: Kluber/German/Gil/Cortes; I choose Kluber and Gil)
There are a lot of tough calls here, particularly at the back-end of the bullpen and at the final starting pitcher spot. I adore Nasty Nestor, and think he’s earned a spot, but I also think one of Wandy Peralta, Clay Holmes, or Joely Rodriguez are interesting enough from a match-up perspective that I could be persuaded to change my mind on either Luetge or Cortes. Gil’s stuff is so good that even if he’s overperformed somewhat as a starter, he has real value as someone who can thrash through a lineup once, and I don’t see how you leave him off the roster.
Here’s the playoff pitching staff without Kluber and Severino:
SP4: Tandem (Pick 2: German/Gil/Cortes; I choose Cortes and Gil)
German fulfills the Severino role in this scenario, and though I’d rather have Sevy, German would likely be solid in a 1-3 inning role. I chose Peralta over Rodriguez and Holmes because I love his change-up from the left side and I get the sense that Boone trusts Peralta more than Rodriguez or Holmes today. Frankly, either of these pitching staffs are formidable in a short series, so the Yanks are in better position from a pitching perspective than they have been in years.
Lionel asks: seems to me, in my ignorance, that a goodly number of Yankee pitchers have shown a goodly amount of improvement over the course of this season. is there evidence to verify my impression and is it reasonable to attribute much of this to the coaching staff?
This question was a late-comer to the mailbag, and I wasn’t able to dig as deeply as I’d like into the subject, so I’m going to commit to expanding this answer significantly in the coming days. However, I think that there is some very good evidence to support Lionel’s impression.
The Yankees’ methodology for assessing, developing, and acquiring pitching has changed markedly over the last couple of seasons, beginning with the hiring of Director of Pitching, Sam Briend, in June 2019 followed by the hiring of Matt Blake as MLB Pitching Coach later that same year. The Yankees recognized that they had struggled to identify good pitching targets in trades and Free Agency, while also struggling to help pitchers develop on their Major League roster, so Brian Cashman brought in Briend to re-evaluate the entire operation. I think we are beginning to see the fruits of that decision.
Just from a quick look at the Yankee pitching staff, we’ve watched the team acquire Wandy Peralta and Clay Holmes for almost nothing, yet both have far outperformed expectations with some small tweaks to repertoire. Jonathan Loaisiga took the step forward we’ve all been waiting for, and prior to his mid-summer struggles, we watched Aroldis Chapman utilize a brand new splitter to stunningly good results. How much of that is coaching and development, and how much of that is just natural progression? I’m not sure, but I think it’s clear that there have been some organizational shifts in pitching philosophy that are yielding good results.
I know this is a cop out, but I will have more on this topic very soon.