Weekly Mailbag: Catcher Options, Roster Cuts, and Pitching Help!
By Andy Singer August 7, 2020
Photo Courtesy of Seth Wenig, AP
Welcome bag to another edition of the SSTN Weekly Mailbag! The Yankees have officially hit their first semi-turbulent stretch of the season, having lost 2 of their last 3 games to the Phillies. There’s been a lot of news over the last couple of days, and you guys had some questions about some of it, so thanks for writing in. Keep sending your questions in to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com, and I’ll keep answering them.
In this week’s mailbag, we’ll talk about options at catcher, cutting the roster from 30 to 28 men, and scouting the league for pitching help! Let’s get at it:
Ethan asks: Given Sanchez’s struggles this season and given that we both know Higgy isn’t a viable candidate to start, should the Yankees consider trying to grab Lucroy as another veteran catcher if things get worse? Or, is the option of Iannetta and/or Kratz good enough for you?
Even I, as possibly the biggest Gary Sanchez apologist on the internet, have to admit that Sanchez’s struggles at the plate have been immensely frustrating. As difficult as it has been to watch Sanchez hit lately, we all need to take a deep breath. On the positive side, Sanchez continues to hit the ball as hard as ever when he does make contact, with a 93.1 MPH Exit Velocity and 45.5% Hard Hit Rate, ranking in the 88th and 76th percentiles, respectively, in those metrics according to Statcast. We have also seen this from Gary in the past over short stints: as a streaky hitter, Sanchez is as good as it gets when he’s locked in, and as lost as he looks right now when he’s off. Lastly, while Sanchez derives most of his value from his offense, his new catching stance is paying dividends in the early going, as Statcast rates him in the 55th percentile in framing, a real improvement from last season. If the offense comes around, Sanchez may be better than ever in due time.
However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note some troubling statistics. Sanchez’s plate discipline has basically disappeared this season, walking just in just 3.3% of plate appearances, while striking out in a whopping 53.3% of plate appearances. Even as extreme slumps go, that’s really bad. To make matters worse, Sanchez is swinging through pitches a hitter of Sanchez’s caliber shouldn’t whiff on. Check it out:
Gary Sanchez Zone Swing and Miss Percentage, Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)
Pay attention to the red line, showing a marked increase in the percentage of fastballs in the strike zone that Sanchez has swung at and missed. That rate has nearly doubled, from 12.8% in 2019 to 20.4% in 2020. That’s very troubling. Hitters are supposed to at least make contact with fastballs in the zone when they swing, particularly given the fact that the Yankees haven’t exactly faced any dominant fastballs yet this year besides Max Scherzer in the first game of the year.
While all of that is worrisome, it’s not yet time to start looking around at other options around the league. Those options are…not good. Jonathan Lucroy was once one of the best all-around catchers in baseball, and I loved watching him play in Milwaukee, but he isn’t anything close to the same guy. Since 2017, Lucroy has been replacement level or worse as a part-time backup catcher. Iannetta is in a similar boat. Realistically, the Yankees have tied their fortunes at catcher to Gary Sanchez, as there is just a dearth of catching depth around the league. If Sanchez is still hitting like this at game 40, then yes, I’m okay with giving Higgy more playing time as a defense-first catcher, but I think the Yankees’ have the best chance of success riding it out with Gary.
Bob asks: Andujar’s out and so are Estrada and Nelson with Tropeano on his way to the Bronx. Thoughts?
I got the news that Andujar was getting sent down in the middle of the day while on a call for my day job, and I actually lost my train of thought on the phone. I was shocked that the Yankees decided to make the move, and at first I was angry the Yankees decided to pull the trigger so quickly. My perception was that Andujar’s gotten a little unlucky at the plate, and that he’s hit the ball hard this year despite poor results. While an exit velocity of 85.6 MPH doesn’t exactly jump out at you, the distribution of hard hits looks different when you see it mapped:
Miguel Andujar Exit Velocity, Courtesy of Statcast (Click to Enlarge)
Andujar has rolled over a few balls in a small sample size, bringing down his overall exit velocity numbers. Small sample size variance and bad luck are largely to blame for Andujar’s early season struggles at the plate, more so than his lack of walks. Given enough at-bats, I’m confident that Andujar would hit.
Therein lies the problem: the Yankees just don’t have enough at-bats to go around in an outfield and corner infield that is performing well. The Yankees experimented with a Gardy-Andujar platoon in LF, but Andujar is really green out there, and in a season in which every game counts more, defensive misplays in the outfield are amplified. Giving Andujar’s innings to Mike Tauchman makes far more sense in that context.
I cringed at the news that Andujar was sent down, but I grudgingly understand the Yankees’ reasoning behind the move.
Thairo Estrada made sense. Estrada really wasn’t getting any playing time, and the Yankees clearly prefer Tyler Wade as the primary utility infielder. I like Estrada long-term, but given the choice between him and Wade, I choose Wade.
Now we get to the interesting part. The Yankees added Tropeano to the 40-man roster when they moved Tommy Kahnle to the 45-day IL (the artist formerly known as the 60-day IL). The Yanks called up Tropeano and sent down Nelson. I don’t get this move at all. I know that i haven’t been shy about stumping for the kids this season, so maybe I’m biased, but it makes no sense to send Nelson down when he only tossed 4.2 innings in the early going, with one stellar outing and one disastrous outing. Admittedly, Nelson’s poor outing in the double-header the other day was disconcerting, but I still believe that his stuff and ability to be effective out of the bullpen is better than other pitchers remaining on the roster. Here’s a quick hit of pitchers I believe should have been jettisoned before Nelson, even if the Yankees insist on adding Tropeano, who hasn’t exactly lit it up at AAA the last couple of years:
Luis Avilan – here for one reason, and one reason only: he’s left-handed. That has very little importance out of the ‘pen with the new restrictions on pitching changes. Avilan would not make this team were he right-handed.
JA Happ – Happ is toast. We’ve seen more than a year’s worth of crummy performances from Happ to know that he won’t help the Yankees win baseball games this year.
David Hale – The Yankees really like Hale. They’ve made that point clear given the variety of ways in which they’ve shoehorned him into the lineup over the last 2 seasons. He’s even pitched well thus far in 2020, and I kind of like him. However, his performance is a mirage. Statcast pegs his XWOBACON (expected WOBA based on contact) at .441. Regression is coming, so why not commit to the kid with better stuff?
The Yankees’ pitching staff needs help, and I don’t think exchanging Nelson for Tropeano helps.
Vinny asks: The Yankees have had some ugly starting pitching this year. Anyone available on the trade market to help out?
I’d love to go through some trade targets, because as much as I love the idea of tandem starters, I’m beginning to fear that the pitching staff is too thin to get the Yankees over the hump in the playoffs. Unfortunately, I think that the trade market for pitching is going to be incredibly thin this year, due to the short season and expanded playoffs. Now that more teams have a realistic shot at the playoffs (including teams below .500), I don’t think that there’s going to be any impact pitching available at the trade deadline.
So, I think the Yankees are stuck with what they have. As I said Wednesday, the Yankees are going to have to get creative at multiple spots in the rotation and embrace a youth movement in order to try to patch together the rotation. A stable 3/4 starter would do wonders for this team, but I don’t see any out there right now. I hope that Tanaka and Monty come on and prove to be a partial solution, so only 2 spots require tandem starters and youth, but I think this is going to be an unconventional year for any number of reasons. Help will only be found within.
Great questions, as usual. Keep ‘em coming, and we’ll see you next week with another mailbag.