For the fourth time in the last six American League Wild Card Games, the New York Yankees find themselves in the one-game, no-holds barred cage match for the right to move on to the American League Division Series. This time, the Yanks will add what promises to be another exhilarating chapter to the greatest rivalry in sports as they face the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park on Tuesday night. What follows is a quick look at how the Bronx Bombers might attack starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi.
Tuesday night’s Red Sox starter has come a long way since his time in pinstripes. Since the start of the 2020 season, 138 pitchers have thrown at least 120 innings. Among them, Nathan Eovaldi ranks 16th in SIERA (3.57) and 18th in K-BB% (21.3%), putting him ahead of Walker Buehler, Charlie Morton, and Lance Lynn in both metrics. To put it simply, over 230.2 innings pitched in the last two seasons, Eovaldi has pitched like an ace.
In 2021, Eovaldi’s been doing it with a four-seam fastball, curveball, slider, split-finger, and cutter. Here’s how he uses that arsenal against lefties and righties, respectively.
The four-seam fastball averaged just under 97 mph this season, and although it doesn’t have great rise in isolation, Eovaldi throws it from a lower than average arm slot with above-average extension. Those two factors, along with the pitch’s well above-average velocity, make for an effective offering, especially at the top of the zone. Eovaldi doesn’t have a true wipeout pitch in his breaking or off-speed stuff, but they’re all about average to above-average offerings that play up off of his strong fastball, which can be seen in the results against those pitches this season.
Eovaldi Average Velocity
MLB Average Velocity
The one thing that really stands out about Eovaldi of late is his control: Nasty Nate’s 4.4% walk rate ranks third among the 138 pitchers with at least 120 innings pitched since the start of last season. Eovaldi also boasts the fifth-highest percentage of pitches thrown in the strike zone (47.1%) and the 13th-highest percentage of first pitch strikes (65.6%) in that span. Eno Sarris’ Stuff+ metric also rates Eovaldi’s command highly, with his 107.2 Location+ ranking fifth among 177 pitchers with at least 1,000 pitches thrown through August 31st of this season. If you only take one thing away about Eovaldi, it should be this: he pumps strikes.
The Yankees league-leading 10.2% team walk rate and league-low 44.6% swing rate in 2021 juxtapose sharply with Eovaldi’s masterful control. If the Yankees take their usual patient approach against the Sox starter on Tuesday night, they might find themselves behind in the count most of the game, which is obviously not where hitters want to be. In a piece in early 2020, FanGraphs’ Ben Clemens showed that, after 0-1 counts, on average, hitters produce a 0.270 wOBA (the average wOBA produced by hitters in 2021 was .314). Similarly, after going 0-1 against Eovaldi in 2021, hitters put up a .264 xwOBA. Looking at those numbers, taking the first pitch against Eovaldi doesn’t appear to be a promising proposition for the Bombers.
It becomes even less attractive when you consider the damage done on the first pitch off the right-hander. On 0-0 swings against Eovaldi in 2021, hitters produced a .359 xwOBA (since you can’t strike out on the first pitch, this figure is somewhat inflated relative to league average offensive numbers). If you include the 2020 season, that number jumps to .392 (very close to the league average .395 xwOBA in that span). To put that in perspective, Shohei Ohtani had a .393 wOBA this season.
So if they’ve got the green light on 0-0, what can the Yankees expect to see from Eovaldi on the first pitch? Righties see four-seam fastballs from Eovaldi over fifty percent of the time on the first pitch, and they did damage in 2021 to the tune of a .385 xwOBA against it. The locations?
Mostly up in the zone with many of them being center cut or middle away. If I was a right-handed hitter in the Yankees lineup, I’d be hunting first pitch fastballs up and out over the plate to lift into the gaps and the seats of Fenway Park.
Things are a bit more difficult for lefties on the first pitch: Eovaldi has thrown 41.2% four-seamers and 38.6% curveballs in 0-0 counts this season. The curve has been something of a boom-or-bust offering as it’s gotten a lot of swing and miss with a 62.5% whiff rate against lefties in 0-0 counts but has surrendered quality contact with a .399 xwOBA against. This probably has a lot to do with how Eovaldi has located the pitch.
If he’s able to bury it in the low-and-away part of the zone, Eovaldi will do well, but if the hammer catches too much of the plate, he’s likely to pay for it.
If Eovaldi is spotting first-pitch fastballs to lefties up-and-away, he’ll be tough to handle, but a lot of the below locations are dangerous, especially to the left-handed power bats the Yankees added at the deadline. Even given the prospect of whiffing on a curveball to go down 0-1, I expect that Anthony Rizzo, Joey Gallo, Brett Gardner, and Rougned Odor will also look to do damage against first pitch fastballs on Tuesday night.
It’s worth noting that this will be the seventh time the Yankees see Eovaldi this season, the fourth time since the All-Star Break, and the second in the last eleven days. There probably isn’t much the Yanks have yet to see from Eovaldi in 2021. If he tries to flip the script with a higher dose of breaking and off-speed stuff than normal early in the count or works outside the zone more in an effort to get New York to chase, the Yankees will have to adjust accordingly.
The Fenway faithful will be loud and ravenous. These one-game playoffs can unravel quickly. Until Eovaldi reveals a different game plan, the Yankees would do well to quiet the crowd early with damage on first-pitch fastballs, taking the Cobra Kai axiom to heart: strike first, strike hard, no mercy.
The New York Yankees have certainly acted with urgency. On Wednesday night, the Yankees traded for Texas Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo and left-handed reliever Joely Rodríguez. The 27-year old Gallo is under team control through 2022, and the Yankees will have a club option on Rodríguez next season. On Thursday evening, they brought Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo to the Bronx. Rizzo turns 32 next month and is a free agent at the end of the season. Without further ado, let’s evaluate the moves.
Competitive Balance Tax Implications
On Tuesday evening, FanGraphs estimated that the Yankees payroll for competitive balance tax (“CBT”) purposes was around $207 million. The Yankees traded Justin Wilson and Luis Cessa to the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday night for a player to be named later, freeing up a little more than $1.3 million in CBT space. Given their well-known goal to reset their CBT status for 2022 by staying under the $210 million CBT threshold in 2021, the trade signaled that the Yankees would be buying at the deadline and that corresponding moves were imminent.
The trade for Gallo and Rodríguez would have added approximately $3.2 million to the then $205.8 million CBT payroll, but the Rangers committed to taking on “most” of Gallo’s and Rodriguez’s remaining 2021 salaries. The Yankees likely sweetened the prospect haul somewhat in return, but doing so gave them the flexibility to make another move and still stay under the CBT threshold.
The Yanks exercised that flexibility by bringing in Rizzo, who is owed about $5.8 million for the remainder of the 2021 season. Yet again, the Yankees sent enough in return for the Cubs to pick up the tab, allowing them to retain something in the vicinity of $4 million to work with under the $210 million threshold, according to FanGraphs.
Gallo and Rodríguez
The Bombers sent second baseman Ezequiel Duran, shortstop Josh Smith, second baseman/left fielder Trevor Hauver, and right-handed pitcher Glen Otto to the Texas Rangers in exchange for Gallo and Rodríguez. Here are the public prospect grades on the players involved in the return.
Driveline’s Dan Aucoin and FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards have both done research on prospect valuation. We can use that research to estimate the value of the prospect package. To assign values to players who have differing grades, we’ll grade Smith as a 45 and use the average value between Hauver’s grades for both his Driveline and FanGraphs valuations; we’ll do the same for Otto’s Driveline valuation, but since Edwards didn’t include 35 or 35+ prospects in his study, we’ll just use the 40 grade for his FanGraphs value, which shouldn’t throw things off too much.
The two models give us a range of approximately $41 million to $47.5 million in prospect value that went back to the Rangers in the trade.
Taking a look at his projections on FanGraphs, it feels reasonable to expect about 1.4 WAR over the rest of the season from Gallo. If we use that same WAR per game rate for next season and project Gallo to play 151 games, he would be worth about 3.6 WAR in 2022. Using the respective $/WAR figures from the prospect valuation research (though, recent $/WAR research indicates that those figures were probably too high and also that $/WAR is not linear), that 5.0 WAR from Gallo equals a value of $45 million (FanGraphs) to $52 million (Driveline). Gallo is entering his final year of arbitration in 2022. Given the year he’s having, he might expect a salary in range of Michael Conforto’s $12.25 million next season. If we put him at a round $12 million, that puts his surplus value between $33 million and $40 million.
The Yankees inherited a $3 million club option on Rodríguez for 2022. Although WAR may not fully capture the value of a relief pitcher, using the same method we did for Gallo, Rodríguez is projected for 0.1 WAR for the rest of 2021 and 0.6 for 2022. That 0.7 WAR converts to a range of $6.3 million and $7.3 million of value. When factoring in what Rodríguez will cost, his surplus value sits between $3.3 million and $4.3 million.
Combined, the two ex-Rangers provide the Yankees with a surplus value of $36.3 million and $44.3 million, which looks like a fair deal but one that the Rangers might have won. When you consider the $3 million or so that the Rangers sent to the Yankees in the trade, things look just about even as the Rangers value range decreases to between $38 million and $44.5 million.
Rizzo was obtained in exchange for right-handed pitcher Alexander Vizcaino and outfielder Kevin Alcantara.
Here’s the prospect package valuation for Vizcaino and Alcantara.
Rizzo’s remaining salary is around $5,800,000. Taking that into account, the Cubs are getting back value in the range of $34,700,000 to $38,300,000.
If we project Rizzo for about 1.2 WAR for the remainder of the season, that’s a value range of $10,800,000 to $12,500,000. From that perspective, this trade seems like a massive overpay from the Yankees, but this return might just be what it took to get the Cubs to eat the rest of Rizzo’s salary to keep the Yankees under the CBT threshold and keep him away from the Boston Red Sox (who later added Kyle Schwarber instead). When you compare it to the Oakland Athletics’ deal for Starling Marte, the Rizzo deal doesn’t look so bad for the Yanks. Oakland sent Jesús Luzardo, once a 60-grade prospect worth around $60 million according to the prospect valuation research, to the Miami Marlins for Marte, who is also a true rental with a projected rest-of-2021 WAR similar to Rizzo’s, and the cash to pay the rest of Marte’ s 2021 salary. Maybe this was just the market for players of this caliber this year, but it’s also possible that the prospect hauls required to get teams to eat salary are a testament to the league’s recent reluctance to spend money generally.
The Added Value of Staying Under the CBT Threshold
There’s an interesting wrinkle to valuing these trades for the Yankees given that they have been able to stay under the $210 million CBT threshold so far. By getting the Rangers and Cubs to retain most of Gallo’s, Rodríguez’s, and Rizzo’s salaries for the rest of this season, the Yankees have avoided incurring the 50% tax on any overage up to $20 million that applies to teams who have exceeded the threshold for three or more consecutive seasons. In addition, staying under would allow the Yankees to reset their CBT penalty status for future seasons, which would make them first-time CBT payors the next time they exceed the CBT threshold. The tax rates for first-time CBT payors are much lower than the maximum rates the Yankees would incur as a CBT payor for a fourth consecutive time in 2022. Finally, as non-CBT payors in 2021, they would also decrease the penalties associated with signing free agents with qualifying offers attached during the upcoming off-season.
Consequently, the Yanks can add any CBT penalty savings they otherwise would have incurred in 2021 and 2022 (and beyond) to their side of the ledger in these deals without any additional cost to the Rangers or Cubs. Had the Yankees not offered prospect packages that enticed the Rangers and Cubs to pick up those salaries, they would have taken on about $9 million in extra salary for CBT purposes for the remainder of 2021 alone. After moving Wilson and Cessa, that would have taken their CBT figure from around $206 million to $215 million. The $5 million overage would have been subject to a 50% tax, which would have cost the Yankees an extra $2.5 million.
The more significant effect (potentially) comes in 2022. If the Yankees were to exceed the CBT threshold in 2022 by $40 million (assuming the CBT structure remains unchanged in the new collective bargaining agreement), they will save $12 million in tax penalties by being first-time CBT payors rather than fourth-time CBT payors. Moreover, as 2021 CBT payors, if the Yankees sign any free agents with qualifying offers attached, they will forfeit an extra draft pick in the fifth-round of the amateur draft and an extra $500,000 of international signing bonus pool money. If they sign two or more free agents with qualifying offers attached, they’ll also forfeit a sixth-round pick. On average, according to research by Craig Edwards at FanGraphs, amateur draft picks in the fifth- through seventh-rounds are worth about $2.5 million each. $500,000 of international signing bonus pool money could be expected to yield a 40-grade prospect on average, which FanGraphs estimates to be worth about $2 million and Driveline estimates to be worth about $4.6 million.
Between 2021 and 2022, that’s a potential total savings of approximately $23 million accrued by sending extra prospect value to compensate the Rangers and Cubs for retaining the salaries of Gallo, Rodríguez, and Rizzo (while also saving the actual $9 million that would need to be paid to those players this season). When you consider those potential future savings and the fact that teams likely have to pay a premium to beat out other contending trade offers, the Rizzo deal pulls closer to even for the Yankees.
The Yankees are now 53-48, 8.5 games behind the division-leading Red Sox and 3.5 games behind the A’s. FanGraphs projects them to finish 89-73, dead even with Oakland for fifth place in the American League, and gives them a 44.8% chance to make the playoffs and a 4.8% chance to win the World Series.
In my most recent post, I identified three urgent needs for the Yankees: outfield, first or second base, and left-handed bats (with a preference for more contact). The Yankees addressed all of them with these moves.
The Yankees found their lacking outfield production in Joey Gallo. You probably know Gallo from his hitting the ball hard: 97th percentile in barrel rate (rate of balls hit with the ideal combination of exit velocity and launch angle) this season, 95th percentile in maximum exit velocity, 84th percentile in average exit velocity. Since the start of the Statcast era in 2015, Gallo ranks ninth in average exit velocity all-time among all hitters with at least 100 batted balls, now giving the Yankees three hitters in the top 9 (Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are first and second, respectively). Gallo also walks a ton: he has the eighth-highest walk rate of any hitter with at least 900 plate appearances since the start of 2018 and first among all qualified hitters this season. Gallo’s power and patience have led to a 139 wRC+ in 2021, the 18th-best mark among qualified hitters. Gallo can also contribute with the glove: he won a Gold Glove in 2020, leads all outfielders in DRS this season, ranks tenth in UZR/150, and ranks in the 95th percentile in Outs Above Average (“OAA”) and in the 91st in Outfielder Jump. Overall, Gallo is a strong answer to the Yankees lack of production in left field this season. The one valid criticism of this move is that Gallo only adds more swing-and-miss to a lineup already plagued by strikeouts.
What Gallo lacks in contact ability Anthony Rizzo provides. Rizzo possesses the fourth-best strikeout rate among all first basemen with at least 900 plate appearances since the start of 2018. He’s done that while providing the ninth-best wRC+ (126) among first basemen in that span. Rizzo truly controls the zone, as he not only strikes out at well below-average rates but has also historically posted comfortably above-average walk rates. Rizzo fields his position, too, with the fifth-best DRS and sixth-best UZR/150 among first baseman since 2018 and a 97th percentile OAA this season. He gives the New York Yankees a more than solid option at first base if Luke Voit’s health remains a concern. He also makes Voit’s inclusion in a trade before today’s deadline more likely.
Gallo and Rizzo also give the Yankees lineup two strong left-handed bats, providing much-needed balance. According to Derek Carty’s THE BAT X projection system (which incorporates exit velocity and launch angle data into its model), Gallo and Rizzo both project to be among the fifty-best hitters over the rest of this season, ranking 25th and 49th overall and 11th and 17th among lefties.
By my calculation, prior to the Gallo and Rizzo trades, New York Yankees position players were projected for 11.3 WAR over the remainder of the 2021 season. Below is a comparison of the Yankees projected WAR from position players (i) before the Gallo and Rizzo trades, (ii) after the Gallo and Rizzo trades if Luke Voit is traded or lost for the season, and (iii) after the Gallo and Rizzo trades if Voit stays and sees the lion’s share of his time at DH, Stanton plays about 40 games in left field, and Gallo plays most games in center.
Post-Trades (w/o Voit)
Post-Trades (w/ Voit)
Going from Rizzo to Voit appears to be something of a lateral move with the only improvement in the non-Voit scenario coming from Gallo taking over left field. The really dramatic gain comes in the scenario where the Yankees keep Voit and move Stanton back to the outfield about two-thirds of the time. If all the Yankees do is add one win (as in the middle scenario), they will likely have only kept pace with Oakland, who also probably added around one win over the rest of the season with their acquisition of Marte. For the Yankees to really gain ground, they need to be closer to scenario three, where they’re expected to add almost two wins over their last sixty-one games. That advantage could come by using Voit, their remaining CBT space, and more prospects to make additional moves before 4 p.m. today. With somewhere between $4 million and $4.5 million left in CBT tax space for 2021, it feels like the Yankees aren’t done yet. No matter what happens over the rest of the season, the Yankees have certainly acted with enough urgency at the deadline to give themselves the best possible chance at another playoff run in 2021.
Just six days from the trade deadline, the New York Yankees find themselves in the tall grass. Another season marred by injuries up and down the roster and some underperforming players have put the Yanks in a tough spot. Their post-All Star Game streak has kept them in the hunt, but it’s hard to see it continuing for much longer without reinforcements. That said, the team’s long-term financial goals make things more complicated than usual. As they approach the deadline, the Yankees will be forced to navigate some treacherous terrain.
State of the Franchise
The Bronx Bombers sit in third place in the American League East with a record of 50-46. They are nine games behind the division-leading Boston Red Sox and 4.5 games back from the second wild card spot, currently occupied by the Oakland Athletics.
FanGraphs projects that the Yankees will post a 37-29 record over their last 66 games (which gives them the third-best projected winning percentage in all of baseball in that span after the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres). At 87-75, that would put the Yankees in sixth place in the American League and out of the playoffs, two games short of the Athletics’ projected finish. Of course, that’s contingent on the 56-43 A’s going just 33-30 the rest of the way. FanGraphs gives the Yankees a 32.4% chance to make the playoffs and a 3.1% chance of winning the World Series.
Where They’ve Been and Where They’re Going
Stepping back from this season for a second, let’s take a look at where the latest Yankee core stands. This group has made the playoffs every year since 2017. They’ve been to the American League Championship Series twice and lost in the American League Division Series to the 2018 World Series champion Red Sox and pennant-winning Tampa Bay Rays in 2020. Aaron Judge, Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Gary Sánchez, Chad Green, and Jameson Taillon are all free agents after the 2022 season. Luis Severino is a free agent after 2023. A new collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) will be negotiated this fall (and probably drag into the winter); with potentially radical changes to the arbitration system on the horizon, Gleyber Torres may reach free agency sooner than after the 2024 season. The same is true for Gio Urshela (after 2023), Luke Voit (after 2024), Jordan Montgomery (after 2024), Domingo German (after 2024), Jonathan Loaisiga (after 2024), and Miguel Andújar (after 2024).
When you consider the current state of the roster, it feels like the window for this iteration of the New York Yankees is closing. This core might only have two more chances at a championship, and one of those is looking pretty slim right now. The time for urgency has come.
That being said, doomsday pronouncements are probably premature. You may have heard about the upcoming free agent class. There are the shortstops, which looks like a position of need for the Bombers: Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Javy Baez, and even a rejuvenated Brandon Crawford looks like an attractive stopgap lately. Other notable position players you might not mind picturing in pinstripes: Freddie Freeman, Kris Bryant, Michael Conforto, Anthony Rizzo, Chris Taylor, Marcus Semien, Starling Marte, Tommy Pham, Joc Pederson, and Kyle Schwarber (not to mention Nick Castellanos, who could opt out). And the starting pitchers: Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, Carlos Rodon, Kevin Gausman, Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman, Zack Greinke, Anthony DeSclafani, Robbie Ray, Alex Wood, Eduardo Rodriguez, Alex Cobb, and Jon Gray among some other interesting names. If this Yankee core is on the precipice of a break-up, there are more than a few ways the team can re-tool through free agency this off-season. From that vantage point, the Yankees look primed to blow past the competitive balance tax (“CBT”) threshold in 2022 as they bolster the roster for another championship run.
Competitive Balance Tax
What makes things tricky for their 2021 run is that the Yankees would prefer to stay under the $210 million CBT threshold this season to reset the penalties before a potential 2022 free agent bonanza. The Bombers were over the $206 million CBT threshold by about $28 million in 2019. In 2020, they exceeded the $208 million CBT threshold by approximately $31 million. FanGraphs estimates that the Yankees current payroll for CBT purposes is around $206.5 million while Spotrac estimates about $209.9 million. Either way, the Yankees will have to get creative if they want to make any significant moves at the deadline while staying under the CBT threshold.
Having exceeded the CBT threshold in the last two seasons, if the Yankees exceed it again in 2021, they would be subject to a 50% tax on the amount by which they exceed the $210 million threshold (up to $20 million over) this season. As third-time CBT payors heading into 2022, they would incur the harshest possible penalties under the CBA if they were to go over again next season.
The structure of the CBT for 2022 and beyond will be determined by the new CBA. The uncertainty of whether there will be a new structure and what that will look like alone isn’t a bad reason to reset their CBT payor status for 2022. But the potential to go comfortably over the 2022 threshold as first-time payors makes the proposition even more compelling.
Let’s assume things stay the same (a big assumption given the tenor of the upcoming CBA negotiation) and the Yankees exceed the CBT threshold for the third and fourth consecutive times in 2021 and 2022. In addition to paying the 50% tax on the first $20 million over the initial CBT threshold, if the Yankees exceed the threshold by more than $20 million, anything they spend over that initial $20 million in overage is subject to a 62% tax up to $40 million over the threshold. At more than $40 million over the threshold, the Yankees would be subject to a 95% tax on the amount they go over $40 million above the threshold. Those penalties are compared to the first-time CBT payor penalties below.
First-Time CBT Payor Penalties
Third-Time CBT Payor Penalties
Initial Threshold (less than or equal to $20 million over)
First Surcharge Threshold (greater than $20 million but less thanor equal to $40 million over)
Second Surcharge Threshold (greater than $40 million over)
At $20 million above the initial threshold level, the Yankees would save $6 million in CBT payments. They would save another $6 million at $20 million above the first surcharge threshold. If they go as high as $10 million over the second surcharge threshold, that’s another $3.25 million saved, for a total of $15.25 million saved at $50 million over the CBT threshold. That may not seem like a lot of money, especially for the New York Yankees, but those savings could go a long way towards building greater roster depth, winning a free agent bidding war, or being used elsewhere in the organization. And if the Yankees go more than $40 million over the CBT threshold, regardless of whether they are a first-, second-, or third-time CBT payor, their first draft pick in the following year’s Rule 4 draft will be pushed back ten spots (which, according to Craig Edwards’ research on draft pick valuation, would cost the Yankees just under $5 million in value if the season ended today).
Exceeding the CBT threshold would affect the Yankees’ pursuit of this offseason’s top free agents in another way. Teams can offer their pending free agents a qualifying offer, a one-year contract with a salary equaling the average of the top 125 salaries in baseball so long as that player (i) has never received a qualifying offer before and (ii) spent the entire season with his most recent former team. If a player rejects a qualifying offer and signs with another team, the signing team is subject to Rule 4 Draft pick and international free agent signing bonus pool forfeiture based on its payroll status. If the signing team is a CBT Payor, it must forfeit its second- and fifth-highest draft picks in the upcoming season’s Rule 4 Draft as well as $1 million of its international signing bonus pool. If a CBT Payor signs multiple free agents who have been offered qualifying offers, they must also forfeit their third- and sixth-highest draft picks in the upcoming season’s Rule 4 Draft. If the Yankees stay under the CBT threshold, however, they would only be subject to forfeiture of their 2nd-highest selection and $500,000 of their international signing bonus pool for their first qualifying offer free agent signing and their third-highest Rule 4 Draft selection if they sign multiple free agents with qualifying offers attached. Retaining two extra draft picks (along with the Rule 4 Draft signing bonus pool allotments associated those picks) and the $500,000 of international signing bonus pool money would give the Yankees a greater opportunity to continue to supply talent to their minor league system.
Most public evaluators have the Yankees farm system ranked as middle of the road. At the start of the 2021 season, MLB.com and Baseball America ranked the Yankees 18th, The Athletic’s Keith Law had them 14th, and ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel ranked them 15th. FanGraphs, the outlier of the bunch, currently has the Yankees farm system ranked fourth overall.
Regardless of their ranking, the evaluation of the minor league system is consistent: a deep system heavy with high upside players who are probably a few seasons away but not many impact players close to the Major League level. Estevan Florial was just re-called to help in the beat-up outfield. Deivi Garcia has struggled in AAA this season. Clarke Schmidt likely won’t return from a right elbow strain until September. For all their stuff, Luis Gil and Luis Medina are still struggling with control issues in the minors. It’s possible the Yankees turn to Oswald Peraza to start at shortstop in 2022 or even bring him up this September, but outside of that, it’s hard to envision any major impact coming from within this season.
Other than Gerrit Cole, Aaron Judge, and the resurgence of Gary Sánchez, not much has gone according to plan for the Yankees this season. Their MLB ranks in FanGraphs’ WAR at each position so far in 2021 are listed below.
Surprisingly, the position players have been the problem for the Yankees in 2021, particularly left and center field. Injuries to Luke Voit and a trip back to Earth for DJ LeMahieu have given the Yankees middling production at first base. Gio Urshela has regressed a good bit, and Gleyber Torres has been struggling for almost a full calendar year now (though, he appears to finally be breaking out of it). Still, the Yankees don’t have much choice but to keep playing LeMahieu, Urshela, and Torres.
The Yankees are also an extremely right-handed heavy lineup, and it’s shown in the numbers. They have a 112 wRC+ against left-handed pitching in 2021 (the fifth-highest mark in the league), but that number falls to 94 wRC+ against right-handed pitching (just 16th overall).
Given all of their injuries and lack of production, it makes sense for the Yankees to target outfielders at the deadline. If they expect Voit to miss extended time, they might even consider some first or second base options. With their woes against right-handed pitching, left-handed bats also make sense for the Bombers. If a starting pitching upgrade presents itself, the Yankees would be wise to listen, but the team will likely look to the returns of Luis Severino and Corey Kluber as its deadline additions and assemble a playoff rotation from Gerrit Cole, Severino, Kluber, Montgomery, Taillon, and German (if they get there). Given the bullpen’s recent breakdowns, adding relief help is tempting, and the Yankees may do so if they can find a cheap upgrade, but they should stay focused on left and center field, first and second base, and left-handed bats.
Reports about the Yankees’ activity so far make it seem like the front office is full steam ahead on the Buy train. They have been linked to Trevor Story, Starling Marte, Joey Gallo, and Max Kepler in addition to rumors that they’re looking to bolster the bullpen. Given the FanGraphs and Spotrac CBT payroll estimates, it will be difficult for the Yankees to add at the deadline and stay under $210 million. But it’s possible that the Yankees could make the money work through some clever roster maneuvering and/or by trading away more valuable prospects so the selling teams defray more 2021 salary.
The consequences of exceeding the CBT threshold are not disastrous. It may not stop the Yankees from making one or even several significant moves in the 2022 free agent class. But with that talented free agent class waiting and accelerating arbitration salaries and potential extensions for Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, and Gary Sanchez coming, it would be ideal for the Yankees to reset in 2021 if possible. Turning the focus from the near future to the present, the Yankees aren’t just trying to bolster their playoff roster at the deadline. They’re trying to improve their second half roster to give themselves the best possible chance of making the playoffs. Missing out on the opportunity to reset only to miss the playoffs would definitely sting.
That being said, this team has been knocking on the door of a championship for the last four seasons. The franchise hasn’t won it all since 2009. The farm system is in a decent spot and can withstand the hit it would take to add Major League talent now. Any prospects moved would likely be higher-risk types in the low minors who won’t debut for some time. The best course of action may be to give this core the best possible shot at having at least two more chances at a ring by pushing in all their chips now.
The Yankees don’t necessarily have to do anything. They’re projected for the third-best record the rest of the way (though, this includes significant playing time from Voit at first base and Clint Frazier and Andújar in left field ) and to finish neck-and-neck with the Athletics for the second wild card. A sudden A’s losing streak could make the Yankees playoffs chances look a lot better. They wouldn’t risk exceeding the CBT threshold or somewhat deplete their improving farm system. But as more injuries pile up, if the Yankees don’t get good news on certain return timetables, the 2021 season could slip away from them soon, possibly leaving 2022 as this group’s last chance at a championship.
Selling doesn’t really seem like it’s in the realm of possibility, but it’s worth thinking about. It’s possible that the Yankees playoff chances are overstated by FanGraphs’ projection system. After all, they’re largely predicated on the Yankees being the third-best team in baseball and the Athletics playing almost .500 ball from this point forward. Projection systems have great value, but that’s a tough common sense sell. If the Athletics continue on their current pace, they’ll win 92 games. For the Yankees to reach that mark, they’ll have to go 42-24 the rest of the way (a 103-win pace over a full season). It’s certainly possible, but that’s a run this Yankees team just might not have in them this season, even with a few deadline additions. From that perspective, selling could be the prudent move.
It wouldn’t be a major sell-off, but the Yankees might be able to improve their farm system further and gain some future payroll flexibility by moving a few pieces without doing major damage to their 2022 roster. Teams are always looking for relievers at the deadline. Chapman and Britton are set to make a combined $30 million (with the CBT payroll hit being about the same) in 2022. Chapman’s recent struggles aside, he and Britton would be two of the better bullpen options available and likely to fetch decent prospects in return. Rougned Odor could be an interesting addition for teams in pursuit of a second baseman or infield depth. Someone might even take a flyer on Corey Kluber’s health to give themselves another arm for the stretch run and postseason. The days of getting Gleyber Torres or Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield in return for top shelf relievers are gone, but the prospects netted in a small sell-off could provide valuable future role players, players to be moved in future deals, or even an unexpected superstar.
At the end of the 2017 season, things were looking very bright for the New York Yankees at the catcher position. A twenty-four year old Gary Sánchez had just followed up his insane 2016 breakout with a 4.3 fWAR and 131 wRC+ in 122 games. His fWAR ranked him fifth among all catchers with at least 300 plate appearances in 2017, and his wRC+ led all catchers in the same group.
Sánchez, now twenty-six going on his age twenty-seven season in 2020, hasn’t really lived up to the lofty expectations 2017 set for him. In 2018, injuries limited Sánchez to only 89 games and 374 plate appearances. His .304 wOBA, 91 wRC+, and 1.7 fWAR all represent career lows. The Yankees backstop bounced back this past season, though injuries cost him playing time again: in 106 games and 446 plate appearances, Sánchez posted a .346 wOBA, 116 wRC+, and 2.3 fWAR.
Complaining about a 116 wRC+ from your catcher is the definition of a baseball first world problem. Catchers hit .236/.308/.405 for a .303 wOBA and 85 wRC+ in 2019, and Sánchez’s wRC+ ranked fifth among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances last season. Still, it’s hard not to feel like Sánchez is falling short of his massive offensive potential.
Part of what’s ailing Sánchez is his deteriorating ability to put the ball in play. The righty slugger’s strikeout rate has increased dramatically since 2017, from 22.9% to 25.1% in 2018 and 28.0% in 2019. According to numbers at FanGraphs, pitchers have progressively thrown more and more pitches to Sánchez outside the strike zone. Problematically, he’s offering less frequently at pitches in the zone and more often at pitches outside the zone in that timeframe.
In the heat maps from 2017, 2018, and 2019 below, you can see that pitchers are giving Sánchez less to hit with their breaking balls in two strike counts.
Sánchez has to improve his plate discipline to regain his 2017 form, and that lack of discipline is likely the real culprit here. But there’s more going on as well.
If you pay attention to Yankees baseball, you know that Sánchez has impressive quality of contact ability. In terms of average exit velocity, Sánchez ranked 17th among 466 hitters with at least 50 batted balls in 2017 (90.8 mph), 76th of 480 hitters in 2018 (90.3 mph), and 60th of 478 hitters in 2019 (91.8 mph). His exit velocity on balls in the air is even more remarkable: 23rd in 2017 (96.0 mph), eighth in 2018 (97.7 mph), and 47th in 2019 (95.9 mph). His maximum exit velocity is where he’s really stood out: 18th in 2017 (115.7 mph), second in 2018 (121.1 mph), and fourth in 2019 (118.3 mph).
Despite his elite exit velocity, since 2017, Gary’s wOBA has underperformed his xwOBA, which calculates a hitter’s expected wOBA based on exit velocity and launch angle.
Some of this could be bad luck. Sánchez had a .304 BABIP in 2017, which was really close to the league average .300 BABIP that season. But his .197 and .244 BABIPs in 2018 and 2019 were a lot lower than the .296 and .298 respective league averages. Even with a league average BABIP in 2017, however, Sánchez underperformed his xwOBA that season. That coupled with the fact that this has been a consistent issue for Sánchez seems to indicate that his underperformance might be more than just misfortune.
Grounds balls definitely appear to be part of the problem for Sánchez. His wOBA has underperformed his xwOBA on all grounds balls, pulled ground balls, and pulled ground balls against shifted defenses in every season since 2017, as shown in the table below.
GB wOBA – xwOBA
Pulled GB wOBA – xwOBA
Pulled GB w/ Shift wOBA – xwOBA
This is likely due to where Sanchez hits these ground balls, and it makes a lot of sense when you look at his ground ball spray charts from 2017 through 2019.
In 2017, Sánchez bombarded the left side of the infield with grounders, likely contributing to that higher 2017 BABIP. In 2018 and 2019, however, Sánchez has hit a ton of his ground balls to spots where shortstops and third basemen are able to easily convert those grounders into outs. That placement is likely a byproduct of his swing and approach. This feature of Sánchez’s batted ball profile will likely cause him to continue to underperform his xwOBA on grounders, as even his hardest-hit ground balls will be gobbled up by the elite fielding of major leaguers when hit right at them.
One note: despite a drastic increase in shifts against Gary since the start of 2017 (27.5% in 2017, 42.8% in 2018, and 65.9% in 2019), the underperformance of his wOBA on pulled ground balls against shifts has actually decreased each year. Additionally, his underperformance on pulled grounders against shifted infields was lower than his underperformance on pulled grounders against unshifted defenses in 2018 and 2019, which indicates that the shift hasn’t had much of a negative effect on Sánchez, probably due to the ground ball spray mentioned above.
While you always want as much offensive production as you can get from all your hitters, let’s be honest: no one’s main concern is what happens when Gary Sánchez hits the ball on the ground. With his elite max exit velocities and average exit velocities on fly balls and line drives, we want to know what’s happening when the Yankees’ backstop puts the ball in the air.
FB wOBA – xwOBA
As you can see in the table above, Sánchez has gotten less production than he should have on fly balls as well. Before you blame Yankee Stadium’s harsh dimensions for right-handed hitters, Sánchez’s wOBA has actually outperformed his xwOBA on pulled fly balls in every season from 2017 through 2019. His wOBA on balls to center, however, has dramatically underperformed his xwOBA.
FB wOBA to CF
FB xwOBA to CF
FB wOBA – xwOBA to CF
In September, FiveThirtyEight’s Travis Sawchik published an article about the declining backspin of batted balls since 2017 and how it might have contributed to the 2019 home run surge. While backspin often creates more lift and can result in more carry on batted balls, Dr. Alan Nathan, a physics professor at the University of Illinois and a consultant for Major League Baseball, pointed out that more spin also leads to more air drag on the ball during its flight, which slows the ball down. Consequently, as spin rates of batted balls exceed the ideal levels for achieving greater distance, the distance balls travel actually decreases. Put simply: too much backspin can be a bad thing.
It’s possible that Sánchez is suffering from this effect. xwOBA is a statistic that is based on two inputs: exit velocity and launch angle. If Sánchez is getting too much backspin on his fly balls, they are likely not traveling as far as the average fly balls hit with those same exit velocities and launch angles. If a batted ball doesn’t travel as far, it might mean that it doesn’t clear the fence or lands in a fielder’s glove instead of on the outfield grass or off the wall, resulting in less offensive production.
Let’s see if we can find examples of Sánchez-struck fly balls that came up short in 2019. To do that, I looked for balls that Sanchez hit hard (above 95 mph) that Statcast designated as fly balls.
Two caveats before going to the tape: some of these clips are from March and April games early in the season. Research by Dr. Nathan has shown that temperature can affect how far batted balls travel: an increase in 10 degrees in temperature can lead to a 2.5 foot increase in distance. While that should be kept in mind when considering the following examples, the average distances of batted balls listed below are taken from balls hit throughout the season, which should mitigate some of the potential distortion due to temperature differences. Secondly, I didn’t account for the effect wind might have had on these fly balls.
On March 28th against Andrew Cashner, it looks like Sánchez absolutely crushes this ball to left at 107.6 mph off the bat and a 33.1 degree launch angle, but it lands in Dwight Smith, Jr.’s glove on the warning track. According to Statcast, the actual distance on this fly ball was 380 feet on a day when the high temperature in the Bronx was 51 degrees. In 2019, the average distance of balls hit between 107 and 108 mph and 33 and 34 degrees was 412 feet. That gap of thirty-two feet is enormous and, as you can see, only a few more feet would have netted the Kraken a home run. While Sánchez’s issue seems to be on balls hit toward the middle of the field, this serves as evidence that some of his pulled fly balls might also be affected by excess backspin.
Sánchez punishes this middle-middle hanging slider from Jimmy Yacabonis on March 30th at 102.6 mph and 28.4 degrees only to have it corralled by Drew Jackson, again on the warning track. Statcast measured Gary’s fly out at 390 feet, but the average ball hit between 102 and 103 mph and 28 and 29 degrees in 2019 traveled 408 feet. The high temperature in the Bronx that day was 65 degrees.
More Orioles: on April 4th, Sánchez takes Alex Cobb deep 411 feet to center at 109.3 mph and 20.2 degrees on a day where the high was 66 degrees in Baltimore. Though there were only five of them in 2019, on average, balls hit to center between 109 and 110 mph and 20 and 21 degrees traveled 426 feet. Because this ball left the yard, this isn’t an example of a ball where Gary missed out on production, but it goes to show that his distance is being affected even on balls that wind up going for homers.
Against Thomas Pannone on June 6th, Gary takes a fastball to the warning track 395 feet away from home plate in center at 103.9 mph and 31.7 degrees. The average fly ball hit between 103 and 104 mph and 31 and 32 degrees went 403 feet in 2019, which certainly would clear the fence at the Rogers Centre.
On June 11th, Jason Vargas induces a 99.4 mph and 30.7 degree Sánchez fly ball that lands in Carlos Gómez’s glove without a threat 370 feet away. The average distance of balls hit between 99 and 100 mph and 30 and 31 degrees in 2019 was 385 feet.
Sánchez takes a Ryne Stanek fastball to center on June 18th at 103.6 mph and 21.5 degrees only for it to be tracked down by Kevin Kiermaier in the rain 384 feet from home. Average balls hit to center between 103 and 104 mph and 21 and 22 degrees traveled 401 feet last season.
There are even more examples than the ones highlighted above of Sánchez fly balls not traveling as far as the average batted balls hit at similar exit velocities and launch angles. Some of these balls might still wind up as outs with some extra distance, but others might leave the yard or bang up against the wall for extra bases. What seems obvious is that Sánchez definitely appears to be losing distance on these fly balls, and you can see how it might be affecting his overall production. Obviously, the difference between a home run or a double and an out is a huge swing.
If you really watch these videos, you can kind of see that, while Sánchez is hitting these balls hard, there’s something about the way his bat comes through the zone that’s preventing him from really squaring them up. The ball does seem to be almost spinning off the bat. With his defense an ever-present issue, it might not be the best idea to pile even more on Sánchez’s plate. But, if Sánchez works to improve his bat path, he might be able to eliminate some backspin and get more carry on his fly balls, harnessing more of his impressive raw power.
Again, the biggest issue here is probably Sánchez’s plate discipline. Excess backspin on fly balls is likely only a small part of why Gary is leaving some offensive firepower on the table. But it’s a piece of a puzzle that could help the Yankees fully unleash the Kraken in 2020.
ALCS Game 1 saw its fair share of exit velocity. Nineteen of forty-nine total batted balls were hit at exit velocities of 95 miles per hour or higher, which MLB’s Baseball Savant designates as “hard hit.” Since 2015, hard hit balls have resulted in the following outcomes on average: .540 batting average; 1.085 slugging percentage; .671 wOBA.
Starters Masahiro Tanaka and Zack Greinke served up thirteen of those hard hit balls in their combined total of thirty-one batted balls allowed: seven of eighteen batted balls for Greinke and six of thirteen for Tanaka. One big difference: Tanaka was able to keep the Houston offense mostly grounded.
Tanaka was also able to stay closer to the edges of the zone than Greinke.
And it shows in where they each got hit hard.
The Yankees made Greinke pay when he came into the middle of the zone but particularly on his four-seam fastball. Here’s what the Yankees did against those fastballs in Game 1.
Fly out to Springer in the 1st
Ground ball single in the 2nd
Fly out to Springer in the 4th
Line drive single in the 5th
Home run to left in the 6th
Home run to right center in the 6th
Greinke’s command will have to be better against the Yankees in the Bronx in Game 4.
On 83 total pitches in Game 1, Greinke threw 47% four-seamers, 30% sliders, 13.3% curveballs, 8.4% changeups, and one eephus. Against righties, Greinke essentially became a four-seamer/slider pitcher, throwing those two offerings about 87% of the time. Look for the Yankees righties to be sitting on either one of those pitches in Game 4.
In ALDS Game 2 against the Twins, Tanaka’s splitter looked like it was back to its pre-2019 form.
The results in Game 1 of the ALCS were something of a mixed bag. If the 2019 playoff baseballs are truly different, there’s even more evidence that the typical movement on Tanaka’s splitter is back, as he got even more drop on the splitter in ALCS Game 1. That extra movement didn’t seem to help too much as the pitch didn’t result in even one swinging strike from the Astros on twenty-two total pitches. The average exit velocity on the five batted balls against the pitch was 90.6 mph, but luckily for Tanaka, that high average exit velocity was accompanied by an average -11.1 degree launch angle, allowing the Yankees righty to limit the Astros to the following batted ball results against the pitch.
Ground out to second in the 1st
Ground out to short in the 2nd
Ground out to third in the 3rd
Line drive single to right in the 3rd
Ground out to pitcher in the 6th
Wednesday night’s rainout has resulted in four games in a row if the series goes seven, throwing a large wrench into the Yankees’ plans to lean heavily on their bullpen. Without a built in day of rest for his pitchers, manager Aaron Boone will need length from his starters now more than ever. Swings and misses are the best result you can get as a pitcher, but with the Yankees needing him to eat innings, Tanaka may be able to rely on the splitter to get quick ground ball outs in Game 4.
The slider was extremely effective for Tanaka against the Astros in Game 1, yielding a .006 xwOBA on an average exit velocity of 76.5 mph and 43.9 degree average launch angle (80.0 mph pop ups from Jose Altuve and Tucker both with 69.0 degree launch angles and a 69.6 mph double play ball against Robinson Chirinos at -6.4 degrees). The slider resulted in eight swings and misses (a whopping 29.6% swinging strike rate) and five called strikes in just twenty-seven pitches. His success with the slider was likely due to his excellent location of the pitch.
According to numbers at Baseball Prospectus, Tanaka’s slider tunnels well with his four-seam fastball to both lefties and righties. You can see that the pitch had great shape in Game 1 and had the Astros off balance expecting fastballs.
This is something Tanaka will be looking to repeat in Game 4. He may also be able to take advantage of the slider’s effectiveness in Game 1 and steal some called strikes on four-seamers if Houston is trying to lay off those sliders diving out of the strike zone.
The Yankees have to expect Greinke to work more on the edges in Game 4 and take a selective approach, forcing the Astros right-hander to challenge the power of the Yankees lineup in their home park with his below average fastball velocity.
Tanaka’s solid performance in Game 1 gives him a slight advantage as he might be able to exploit an Astros lineup that could be more keyed in on his slider the second time around.