Weekly Mailbag: The Astros, Judge’s Balky Shoulder, Tanaka’s Cutter, and Sevy’s El
Unfortunately, the start to the 2020 season doesn’t feel all that different from 2019 so far. We’re one week into camp, and already 2/5 of the Yankee starting rotation is on the shelf as is Aaron Judge. We’ll talk about the injuries a bit today, but it’s just crazy to see the run of injuries continue. It’s just another reminder that change does not happen overnight. Let’s hope the first Spring Training game this weekend doesn’t add to the body count.
In today’s mailbag, we’ll talk about the Astros, Judge’s balky shoulder, Tanaka’s cutter, and Sevy’s elbow. Let’s get at it:
Patrick asks: A friend and I are arguing about the 2020 Astros. I say the tumult over the scandal will be a considerable weight on the Stros this year, and the road fan base at every game will be mercilessly relentless. I am taking the under easily at whatever number Vegas eventually posts. My friend suggests that they will play with a chip on their shoulder this year to show everyone how talented they are and how little the scandal really affected games. Where do you lean?
There’s one really important thing to remember: the Astros are still really, really good. Yes, they have been embroiled in a scandal that has overtaken the sport. And yes, they lost their best starting pitcher, Gerrit Cole, to Free Agency. However, this remains one of the best lineups in baseball, and the pitching staff is more than good enough to win the AL West. Whether or not the lineup has the signs, Bregman, Springer, Altuve, Correa, and Yordan Alvarez are a formidable group of hitters.
I don’t want to minimize the day-to-day effect that negativity surrounding a team can have. The first time the Astros slump, the negativity that is sure to engulf a road ballpark when they’re in town will seem a lot louder, and they’ll find out just how strong their clubhouse really is. That said, there are a few factors that make me think that the Astros players will find a way to tune out the cacophony of malicious taunts that are sure to greet them on the road. For one, new manager Dusty Baker has proven to be an excellent manager of people throughout his career, and I expect him to keep that group together. I also think that the Astros have displayed such blunt arrogance and defiance as a team that maybe they really don’t care what the outside world thinks of their actions – as they say, ignorance is bliss, and I think that arrogance could give way to ignorance in this situation. Lastly, these are professional ballplayers. Professional athletes are used to tuning out noise and negativity, particularly in baseball where failure is so ingrained and the ascent from the minors to the majors is so arduous. I expect the Astros to use a combination of a good clubhouse manager, ignorance due to arrogance, and professional attitudes to weather the storm this year from a performance perspective.
However, I want to make this crystal clear: the Astros’ actions in 2017 (and likely the following seasons) did have an affect on games. Even if the Astros have a good season this year, it doesn’t prove that their particular brand of sign stealing didn’t change the way in which the game on the field was played. I am firmly in the camp of people who think that this is a huge deal, and Major League Baseball (particularly Rob Manfred) screwed up the punishment royally. The Astros’ organizational defiance merely backs up these feelings. I hope the Astros have an awful season, but I don’t think it’s likely – they remain a good club on the field.
Dave asks: How concerned are you about Judge’s shoulder? Is this standard maintenance in camp?
I’m not sure what to make of Judge’s shoulder issue. The Yankees haven’t exactly earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to diagnosing injuries and providing timelines for injury recovery. I am concerned that the Yankees were coy in describing the test results on Judge’s shoulder. The description the Yankees used was that there were no changes structurally to Judge’s shoulder. That doesn’t mean the same thing as there are no structural issues with his shoulder.
On the other hand, no one who plays baseball for any length of time have completely clean shoulders or elbows, and I expect that Judge is no different. It is entirely possible that the pain Judge is feeling is the type of pain that he would normally play through during the regular season, and the Yanks are really just being cautious. The possibility exists that the Yankees are just making sure Judge is ready for a good, long season.
On a scale of 1-10, my worry level is something like a 4. Judge’s shoulder issue is worth monitoring, but we don’t need to panic just yet.
Chad asks: Aaron Boone talked about Tanaka’s attempts to work on his cutter so far in camp during his press conference today. Is this a Spring Training story that we’ll never hear about again during the season, or is this a trend worth tracking?
I am actually very interested in Tanaka’s increased effort with the cutter. In fact, we know that during a simulated game, Tanaka requested a couple of extra lefty batters so that he could work on cutter location against batters with the platoon advantage against him.
One of the things that Tanaka has excelled at throughout his career is changing his pitch mix based on hitter trends and his own confidence levels. When Tanaka came to the majors, he threw his four-seam fastball on more than 50% of pitches, and he used his devastating splitter to confound hitters. Fast forward a few years, and now Tanaka throws his four-seam fastball in less than 30% of his pitches, and his slider became his primary offering. From year-to-year, Tanaka has shown a willingness to alter his pitch mix to keep hitters on their toes.
2019 was different for Tanaka for a number of reasons. Tanaka struggled more than he had in previous seasons for long stretches of the 2019 season. While Tanaka was still an excellent starting pitcher, and the Yankees are lucky to have him as a main cog in the rotation, he had far more trouble finding a pitch mix that worked consistently last year. Part of this was due to the fact that his splitter behaved differently, and he was unable to utilize it as a weapon for much of the season. Many observers, myself included, have speculated that the ball that was used last season contributed greatly to Tanaka’s struggles with his splitter. No one knows what the ball will look like this year, so we can’t say for certain that Tanaka’s splitter will magically return.
This is why I think it makes sense for Tanaka to un-shelve the cutter. Tanaka struggled to put away hitters, and they began to sit on his slider. The ability to give hitters a different look makes Tanaka more dangerous, and given the uncertainty surrounding the ball this year, I think that Tanaka is serious about trying to increase his cutter usage.
Robert asks: Talk me off the ledge – first Paxton, now Severino. Is Severino going to end up with Tommy John? “Loose bodies” in the elbow sounds ominous. And how did the Yankees not handle this in the offseason when they knew this was a problem?!?!
I think we’re all pretty upset about the Severino news. I know that I’ve been dreaming about the Cole-Severino 1-2 punch all off-season, and I’m sure that I’m not alone on that point. I agree that the description of a loose body in Severino’s elbow sounds bad. The Yankees clearly hoped that an off-season of rest would help Severino’s elbow return to an asymptomatic state. Now that Severino remains symptomatic, it’s easy to criticize the Yankees with hindsight being 20-20. However, the Yankees haven’t exactly earned the benefit of the doubt after all of the issues they had diagnosing and managing injuries last season.
At the end of the day, we won’t know enough to comment on what’s going on until Sevy gets an MRI. Until then, I’ll be holding my breath.
That’s all for this week! Keep sending the great questions to SSTNReadermail@gmail.com. Let’s try to enjoy the fact that people wearing Yankee uniforms will be on the field tomorrow for the first Spring Training game. Hopefully we don’t get anymore bad news by then.