ALCS Game 4 Notes

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.

BatterExit VelocityResult
Aaron Judge102.8 mphFly out to Springer in the 1st
Giancarlo Stanton107.1 mphGround ball single in the 2nd
Giancarlo Stanton104.5 mphFly out to Springer in the 4th
Gio Urshela105.7 mphLine drive single in the 5th
Gleyber Torres94.5 mphHome run to left in the 6th
Giancarlo Stanton110.7 mphHome 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.

Date RangeUsagexwOBASwStr%Vertical BreakSpin Rate
201926.7%.30911.2%-27.67 inches1588 rpm
10/5/201934.9%.14724.1%-30.72 inches1557 rpm
10/12/201932.4%.4510.0%-30.98 inches1615 rpm

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.

BatterExit VelocityLaunch AngleResult
Michael Brantley102.0 mph-3.9 degreesGround out to second in the 1st
Yuli Gurriel88.0 mph2.0 degreesGround out to short in the 2nd
Carlos Correa90.5 mph-0.9 degreesGround out to third in the 3rd
Kyle Tucker106.6 mph10.8 degreesLine drive single to right in the 3rd
Carlos Correa65.8 mph-63.5 degreesGround out to pitcher in the 6th

Wednesday night’s rainout has resulted in four games in 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.

ALCS Game 2 Notes

The New York Yankees will face thirty-six year old right-hander Justin Verlander in Game 2 of the 2019 American League Championship Series on Sunday night. Verlander posted a 3.17 FIP, 2.95 SIERA, and 2.51 DRA in 223.0 innings pitched in 2019. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched, Verlander ranked third in strikeout rate (35.4%), third in chase rate (37.2%), sixth in contact rate (68.8%), and fourth in swinging strike rate (16.1%).

Verlander does it with a four-seam fastball (49.2%), slider (28.2%), curveball (18.5%), and changeup (4.1%).

Pitch TypeAvg. Velo.Vert. Break vs. Avg.Hor. Break vs. Avg.
Four-Seam94.6 mph2.9 inches3.2 inches
Slider87.5 mph-2.3 inches0.3 inches
Curveball79.4 mph2.0 inches1.5 inches
Changeup86.9 mph-1.9 inches3.5 inches

The elite rise and arm-side run on Verlander’s four-seam fastball get tons of balls in the air: between 25.3% line drives, 55.6% fly balls, and 25.5% infield fly balls, only 19.2% of Verlander’s four-seamers wind up on the ground. With the 2019 ball, Verlander gave up his fair share of home runs when throwing the four-seamer (21.8% home run per fly ball rate), but the suspected change in the baseballs may have eliminate that weakness from Verlander’s 2019 game in the playoffs. The movement on JV’s four-seamer has also resulted in a 14.3% swinging strike rate in 2019.

Verlander’s slider has absolutely devastated hitters this season. The pitcher gets hitters to chase out of the zone 53.4% of the time and has a 24.0% swinging strike rate. Verlander’s .178 xwOBA against on the slider ranks second among the 106 pitchers to throw sliders against at least 100 hitters in 2019.

The curve has also been ultra-effective for Verlander this season, with a .247 xwOBA against. He’s able to drop the pitch in for a strike as he’s done so 46.3% of the time in 2019.

Verlander’s fastball is so overpowering that it remains effective despite his predictable usage of the pitch. He starts lefties off with four-seamers 65% of the time. Righties see first pitch fastballs from JV 61% of the time. When hitters are ahead in the count, Verlander leans even more heavily on the fastball at 67% (vs. lefties) and 66% (vs. righties) clips. He locates those fastballs up in the zone, playing on the extreme “rising” action of the pitch.

The Yankees will probably be looking to jump on fastballs early in the count or when ahead, hoping to get balls in the air to the short porches in left and right field at Minute Maid Park, but it’s likely going to be much more easily said than done against Verlander.

When he gets ahead, Verlander moves to his slider and curveball almost evenly to lefties (28% and 26% of the time) but still forces hitters to protect against fastballs, throwing them at a 39% rate. With two strikes against lefties, he throws 40% four-seamers and 34% sliders, which tunnel very well with his four-seam fastballs to hitters digging in from the left side. Verlander does a great job of burying those sliders down and in to lefties.

Verlander goes to his slider even more frequently when ahead on righties (47%) and with two strikes (49%). Once again, his location is lethal.

There doesn’t appear to be much hope against JV’s slider. Verlander’s curve, however, might present more of an opportunity to jump on a hanger when the former Cy Young and MVP has the advantage in the count.

Verlander catches a lot more of the zone with the hammer. The name of the game for Yankees hitters behind and with two strikes may be to hope to be able to spit on the slider and either hunt fastballs or hope for a curve that gets too much of the plate.

The Yankees hit four-seam fastballs well (sixth-highest team xwOBA against in 2019 at .374), presenting yet another classic power versus power matchup between Verlander and the Bombers.

James Paxton goes for the Yankees in Game 2. The Astros strong right-handed hitters (George Springer, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa) could be a challenge for the lefty Paxton. Even with Yuli Gurriel possessing reverse splits over the course of his career (1886 plate appearances), the Astros were the best offense in baseball against lefties in 2019 with a 131 wRC+. Paxton’s splits against righties and lefties, both in 2019 and his career, are below.

Batter HandednessFIPK%BB%HR/9
vs. L (2019)2.2329.9%5.8%0.49
vs. L (Career)2.7426.1%7.7%0.56
vs. R (2019)4.3929.2%9.6%1.66
vs. R (Career)3.4026.5%7.3%1.03

As you might have imagined, Paxton has historically had more success against lefties. The splits are a little more exaggerated this season due to his high walk rate against righties and huge difference in home runs allowed per nine.

From August 7th on, Paxton changed his pitch mix. He cut back on his four-seamer and cutter and started throwing his knuckle curve twice as often.

Paxton’s overall numbers improved.

Pre-August 7thMetricPost-August 7th
4.31FIP3.09
29.5%K%29.2%
9.1%BB%7.9%
1.69HR/90.82
17.5%HR/FB%8.3%
14.9%/45.9%/39.2%Soft/Med/Hard Contact21.5%/43.7%/34.8%
.305xwOBA.271

He didn’t start striking more hitters out, but he did induce weaker contact more frequently.

The change in pitch mix also might have improved his splits against righties: his .274 xwOBA against righties since August 7th is an improvement on his pre-August 7th .311 xwOBA in 2019 and his .288 career mark (includes all games from 2015 to August 6, 2019). Paxton’s recent success against righties makes sense when you consider his increase in knuckle curve usage: his knuckle curve tunnels extremely well with his four-seam fastball from the right-handed batter’s point of view. The Pitching Ninja GIF below gives some idea of what righties have to deal with.

The Astros crush four-seam fastballs (8th in xwOBA at .370) and traditional curveballs (4th at .303) as a lineup, but they haven’t fared as well against knuckle curves (16th at .258). The sample sizes for all of this are not huge, but despite being a lefty and relying on a four-seam fastball/curveball mix, Paxton may not be at as much of a disadvantage against the Astros as the average pitcher.

One final note: In addition to the knuckle curve, Paxton has that cutter, which also tunnels well with his four-seamer to both righties and lefties. As a lineup, the Astros haven’t handled cutters well: they rank twenty-third in xwOBA against cutters (.303) and twelfth in run value per 100 cutters thrown (-0.09). Paxton working the cutter in a little more often than usual could be something to watch for on Sunday night.

ALCS Game 1 Note: Yankees manager Aaron Boone lifted Masahiro Tanaka after the righty had given up no runs, one hit, and one walk on sixty-eight pitches facing the minimum number of batters through six innings. With the top of the Astros lineup coming back up for the third time to start the bottom of the seventh, here’s why Boone went to Ottavino. First, Tanaka’s 2019 numbers by number of times through the order.

Times Through The OrderFIPK%xwOBA
First Time Through2.9824.5%.277
Second Time Through4.7718.2%.334
Third Time Through5.6915.3%.339

And for his career (xwOBA is from 2015 on).

Times Through The OrderFIPK%xwOBA
First Time Through3.2625.2%.287
Second Time Through4.0623.1%.316
Third Time Through4.4520.3%.327

On July 20th against the Colorado Rockies, Tanaka cruised through five innings, facing only seventeen batters and surrendering two singles. As the Rockies turned their lineup over for the third time, with one out in the sixth, Tanaka gave up a single to Charlie Blackmon, a double to Trevor Story, a walk to David Dahl, a homer to Nolan Arenado, a double to Daniel Murphy, and a single to Ian Desmond. Tanaka had been dominant after retiring the nine-hitter Tony Wolters to start the sixth. One batter later, he started to implode with absolutely no warning.

Tanaka certainly appeared to be cruising again on Saturday night, but it’s a reality that the more times hitters see a single pitcher in a game, the less effective that pitcher becomes. Against a lineup like the Astros, when it feels like the Yankees absolutely needed Game 1, turning the game over to a superior bullpen to nail it down was the right call. Boone needed to manage last night almost like a Game 7 and that means pulling your starter before he gets into trouble the third time through the lineup. According to the ZiPS projection system at FanGraphs, by winning Game 1, the Yankees flipped their chances of winning the series from 45.8% on Friday to 63.1% today.

ALCS Game 1 Notes

The New York Yankees and Houston Astros are set to kick off the ALCS tonight in Houston. Here are some notes about two teams that have been on a collision course all season.

Houston had the best lineup in baseball this year, leading the league in wOBA (.355) and wRC+ (125). Even the mighty Yankees trailed Houston, ranking third (.346) and second (117) in those categories.

No team walked more than the Astros this season, who took free passes at a 10.1% clip. In addition to their superior plate discipline, the Astros displayed elite bat-to-ball skills: no team struck out less than the Astros, who did so at an 18.2% rate. The Yankees ranked twelfth in both, at 9.1% and 23.0% rates, respectively.

Houston’s domination of the strike zone doesn’t when their hitters are digging in: the Astros pitching staff struck out a league-best 27.9% of hitters in 2019. Their 7.5% walk rate ranked fourth-lowest. The Yankees? Seventh at 25.0% and tenth at 8.3%.

Masahiro Tanaka goes for the Yankees in Game 1. Tanaka used his famous splitter 26.7% of the time in 2019 despite having trouble with the pitch earlier in the season, potentially due to the 2019 baseballs. There’s evidence that the baseballs have changed this postseason and have more drag than they’ve had since 2016. That could be good news for Tanaka’s splitter. Here are some results against the pitch from Tanaka’s Game 2 ALDS start against the Minnesota Twins compared to Tanaka’s season averages.

Date RangeUsagexwOBASwStr%Vertical BreakSpin Rate
201926.7%.30911.2%-27.67 inches1588 rpm
10/5/201934.9%.14724.1%-30.72 inches1557 rpm

That 24.1% swinging strike rate is much closer to the 23.7% and 21.7% marks that Tanaka put up with the splitter in 2017 and 2018. According to Brooks Baseball, in 2019, Tanaka only got more vertical break on his split-finger in his final regular season start against the Texas Rangers than he did in ALDS Game 2 against the Twins. In that start against Texas, however, all of Tanaka’s pitches registered season-high vertical break numbers and his vertical release points on all pitches also registered season-lows, which might indicate an issue with the tracking system in Texas. If the baseballs actually have changed, and the numbers from October 5th certainly look encouraging, the Yankees Game 1 starter might have the most powerful version of his most dangerous weapon back in his arsenal.

Even better news for the Yankees: according to Pitch Info data available at FanGraphs, the Astros struggled as a lineup against splitters this season. They rank eleventh-worst in MLB with a -1.45 run value per 100 splitters seen. According to Baseball Savant, the Astros rank thirteenth-best at hitting the splitter with a .254 xwOBA in 2019, the worst of any playoff team and lower than Minnesota’s third-best .296 mark. The Astros juggernaut just might have one weakness the Yankees right-hander is uniquely positioned to exploit.

The Astros were the best team in baseball at handling sliders in 2019 (0.85 run value per 100 sliders seen and .312 xwOBA), so Tanaka will need to be cautious with his most frequently thrown offering (36.3% usage rate in 2019).

The Astros Game 1 starter Zack Greinke uses a four-seam fastball (40.9%), changeup (21.9%), slider (16.1%), curveball (14.6%), and sinker (5.3%) in addition to the occasional eephus, splitter, and cutter (1.2% combined). Interestingly, Greinke’s changeup only averages 2.5 less miles per hour than his four-seamer (87.5 mph to 89.9 mph).

As a team, the Yankees crush four-seamers and changeups.

Pitch TypeRun Value/100MLB RankxwOBAMLB Rank
4-Seam0.643rd.3746th
Changeup0.811st.3173rd

Against the power-laden Bomber lineup, if Greinke isn’t sharp, he could find himself in trouble with his two primary offerings. Greinke is likely to go to the slider more, especially against a righty-heavy Yankees lineup, but he won’t find much more safety there: the Yankees ranked fifth in run value/100 against sliders at -0.05 and second in xwOBA with a .296 mark.

ALCS Roster Note: The Yankees dropped Tyler Wade in favor of Aaron Hicks, a major upgrade if Hicks is fully healthy. While Hicks’ inclusion complicates some decisions about lineup construction, he certainly upgrades the Yankees outfield defense by manning center and allowing Brett Gardner to take over in left for Giancarlo Stanton, whose knee was clearly not 100% for the ALDS. In Game 1, with a starter who keeps the ball on the ground going for the Yankees and a starter who doesn’t strike a ton of hitters out on the hill for the Astros, the Yankees may opt for better infield defense and less contact in exchange for more power in the lineup, playing DJ LeMahieu at first, Gio Urshela at third, and Stanton in left with Edwin Encarnación at DH and Gardner starting the game on the bench.

The Yankees also left first baseman Luke Voit off the ALCS roster and included lefty CC Sabathia. The Astros don’t feature a single left-handed pitcher on their ALCS roster. That being the case, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Voit was going to play in this series. An extra lefty out of the bullpen against Michael Brantley, Yordan Alvarez, Josh Reddick, and Kyle Tucker is probably going to be more crucial. Sabathia’s splits in 2019 are below.

Batter HandednessFIPxFIPK%xwOBAExit Velocity
vs. L5.794.1025.5%.27984.5 mph
vs. R5.634.9322.1%.31686.9 mph

Sabathia was bit by the home run bug against lefties in 2019, resulting in a high FIP, but his xFIP against lefties shows that he may have suffered from some bad luck in that department. Sabathia’s xwOBA against lefties ranks him 100th of 479 pitchers with at least fifty plate appearances against lefties in 2019. His exit velocity allowed ranks even better at 21st among 371 pitchers.

When you leave a bat like Voit’s off a playoff roster, you can only marvel at the Yankees’ organizational depth. It’s a hard choice, but Cameron Maybin’s usefulness as a pinch runner who can also take real at bats and play the outfield and Sabathia’s ability to neutralize some tough lefties in the Astros lineup edged out the right-handed slugger.

ALDS Game 1 Notes

The Minnesota Twins will send José Berríos to the hill against the New York Yankees in Game 1 tonight. Here are some notes on the Twins twenty-five year old right-hander.

Berríos doesn’t strike a lot of hitters out with a 23.2% strikeout rate, but he has good control (6.1% walk rate) and keeps the ball on the ground more often than not.

GB%LD%FB%PU%
42.9%24.0%25.2%7.8%

He probably hasn’t been as good as his 3.68 ERA looks. His low walk rate and ability to keep the ball in the ballpark put his FIP at 3.85, but his SIERA is 4.28, his DRA is 4.44, and his DRA- is 91 (rating him 9% above average in 2019).

According to Baseball Savant, Berríos uses a four-pitch repertoire: four-seam fastball (31.1%); curveball (28.9%); two-seam fastball (24.1%); and changeup (15.9%).

Against righties, he uses the curve (34.7%) and two-seamer (29.0%) more often, shelving the four-seamer (25.9%) and changeup (10.3%) somewhat. According to Brooks Baseball, when ahead in the count against righties, Berrios goes to the curve 39% of the time, and that remains the case with two-strikes. Righties still have to protect against Berríos’ two fastballs, which he uses about 50% of the time in both cases, mixing in the occasional change at a 10% clip. When righties are ahead, the Twins righty goes to his sinker 43% of the time, the most frequently he uses any pitch in any scenario, which might allow the Yankees righty-heavy lineup to hunt sinkers if Berríos gets behind. It won’t be as easy as it sounds as Berríos does a great job of locating his sinker low and in to right-handed hitters.

Left-handed batters see a heavier dose of four-seamers (36.3%) and a greater variety of Berríos’ secondary offerings, with the deuce and changeup being used almost evenly (23.1% to 21.2%) and the two-seamer not far behind at 19.4%. When Berríos is ahead on lefties, he goes to the four-seamer 44% of the time, and it’s also his most often-used pitch against them with two strikes at 41%. When ahead in the count, Yankees lefties will likely be looking for either of Berríos’ fastballs, which both get used around 30% of the time. Given their locations, lefties might be best-served preying on the four-seamer over the sinker.

The four-seamer also surrenders 45.8% fly balls compared to just 25.2% for the two-seamer. Trying to get the four-seamer in the air to right field feels like the right approach for lefties in Yankee Stadium.

Metric4-SeamCurve2-SeamChange
xwOBA.299.287.328.295
Whiff%24.3%29.0%12.8%29.0%
Avg. Velocity93.1 mph81.2 mph92.1 mph82.5 mph
Rise/Drop Above Avg.-0.8 in.-5.1 in.-0.2 in.2.9 in.
Hor. Break Above Avg.2.0 in.7.0 in.1.3 in.0.3 in.
Spin Rate2193 rpm2334 rpm2109 rpm1705 rpm

No one of Berríos’ pitches really stands out. Without a dominant offering to lean on, Berríos does a really good job of forcing hitters to constantly be aware of his whole arsenal, which you can see in the pitch mix outlined above. Other than the changeup, which gets about 9% greater drop than average, Berríos’ pitches don’t get much vertical movement compared to average. His game appears to be more about moving the ball in and out on hitters. His curveball gets 10% less drop than average, but 70% more glove-side break than the average curveball. His four-seamer gets 26% more arm-side run than average, and his two-seamer gets 9% more. Here’s what the four pitches look like.

Four-Seamer
Curveball
Two-Seamer
Changeup

In 2019, Berríos’ splits against righties and lefties were pretty even: a 3.80 FIP against lefties and 3.91 against righties. In his career, he’s been more successful against righties (3.86 FIP vs. righties to 4.34 vs. lefties) but only because his walk rate has historically been higher against lefties (9.7% vs. 5.6%). Berríos’ effectiveness against lefties likely lies in the strong tunneling effect of his four-seamer and curve to those digging into the left-handed batter’s box. The four-seamer and change also tunnel well together, but they vary at release by about 3.5 inches on average, which could give the Yankees hitters something to look for when trying to differentiate between the fastball and change.

With Paxton on the hill, the Twins will probably start Mitch Garver, the right-handed hitting half of their brilliant catcher platoon. Baseball Savant rates Garver above average at framing strikes on the middle edge of the plate near the right-handed batter’s box (63.9% of pitches called strikes), the middle edge of the plate near the left-handed batter’s box (63.8%), and in the middle of the plate at the bottom of the zone (57.8%). Garver’s framing ability in those specific locations could allow Berríos to steal some called strikes with his curveball (middle down), two-seamer (middle edges), and changeup (middle down). Garver’s a good amount below average at all four corners of the strike zone and slightly below at the top of the zone, so the Twins will be hoping for swings and misses on curveballs located near the corners of the strike zone and four-seamers at the top.

The righty hurler saw his average fastball velocities dip from July 31st to August 29th, but he appears to have bounced back since the start of September.

His rough second half was more bad luck than anything else. Despite having a 3.00 ERA in the first half and a 4.64 in the second, his FIPs were almost identical: 3.85 to 3.86. His left-on-base percentage and BABIP in the second half were to blame for the ERA spike. His LOB% decreased from 78.3% to 68.2%, and his BABIP increased from .276 to .333. He both struck out (25.2% to 21.6%) and walked (7.8% to 4.8%) more hitters in the second half, so the Yankees may look to be a little more patient than they otherwise would be, especially in a hostile playoff atmosphere for Berríos.

José Berríos is a solid pitcher who keeps hitters on their toes with an evenly distributed pitch mix. He keeps the ball on the ground and doesn’t give out many free passes, but he gives up a good amount of contact. For a lineup packed with high exit velocity hitters in a ballpark that has played small historically, the Yankees should feel good about that slightly above average contact rate going into Game 1.

ALDS Roster Note: The Yankees opted for Tyler Lyons over Stephen Tarpley for their lefty specialist role. In his 8.2 innings pitched with the Yankees in 2019, Lyons struck out 35.3% of hitters and walked only 5.9%. In his career, he’s been much more successful against righties than Tarpley (4.25 FIP vs. 7.12), which is likely why he got the roster spot. He’s not as dominant against lefties (3.64 FIP vs. Tarpley’s 2.28), but the Twins roster is highly platoonable, and their lineup will likely be structured to make it difficult for a pitcher to face two lefties in a row.

If You Build It, They Will Definitely Structure Their Roster Differently

The New York Yankees will kick off their 2019 postseason when the Minnesota Twins come to Yankee Stadium for Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Friday night. Before the team takes the field, Yankees manager Aaron Boone and the front office will have some difficult decisions to make as they assemble a twenty-five man roster for the series.

Some decisions are relatively easy, so it probably makes sense to start by getting those out of the way. First, the position players.

PlayerPosition
Gary SanchezC
Austin RomineC
DJ LeMahieuIF
Gleyber TorresIF
Didi GregoriusIF
Gio UrshelaIF
Aaron JudgeOF
Brett GardnerOF
Giancarlo StantonOF

And the pitching staff.

PlayerPosition
James PaxtonLHP
Masahiro TanakaRHP
Luis SeverinoRHP
J.A. HappLHP
Aroldis ChapmanLHP
Zack BrittonLHP
Adam OttavinoRHP
Tommy KahnleRHP
Chad GreenRHP

With those uncontroversial decisions settled, there seem to be four more to make: (i) whether to carry thirteen position players and twelve pitchers or vice versa; (ii) deciding between Luke Voit, Edwin Encarnacion, and Mike Ford at first base and designated hitter; (iii) deciding between Cameron Maybin, Tyler Wade, and Clint Frazier as extra outfielders; and (iv) filling out the final three or four pitching staff vacancies.

1. 13 and 12 vs. 12 and 13

The Yankees are likely rolling out this starting rotation in the ALDS.

GameStarting PitcherDate
Game 1James PaxtonFriday, October 4
Game 2Masahiro TanakaSaturday, October 5
Game 3Luis SeverinoMonday, October 7
Game 4Chad Green to J.A. HappTuesday, October 8
Game 5James PaxtonThursday, October 10

In a full five-game series, you need your pitchers to cover at least 45 innings. In a very good world for the Yankees, Paxton probably covers thirteen of those, Masahiro Tanaka covers six, Severino covers five, and Green and Happ combine to cover six in Game 4. In this scenario, you only need fifteen innings from your bullpen over seven days. Before opening Game 4, Green should be available for two innings if needed in Games 1 and 2. Pencil Chapman, Britton, Ottavino, and Kahnle in for three each, and you’re asking your final three pitchers for one inning to round things out. In this case, Boone has hardly used those extra pitchers to get him a nice platoon matchup or eat innings in a possible extra inning game or blowout.

Against an offense like Minnesota’s in ballparks like Yankee Stadium and Target Field, this could easily break down. Maybe you only get ten total from Paxton, four from Tanaka in Game 2, and three from Severino in Game 3. If Green and Happ only get you four innings in a Game 4, all of the sudden, you’re asking your bullpen for twenty-four innings. In a Game 5, it’s obviously all hands on deck. You could have Tanaka ready to back up Paxton in the win-or-go-home scenario for two or three innings. Maybe Green can give you three innings outside of Game 4 in this scenario. Let’s say you ask Ottavino and Kahnle for four each and get three each from Chapman and Britton. In that case, you need four innings from three other pitchers. That doesn’t seem crazy. Even if you up that number to six, it doesn’t feel like the end of the world. And, let’s be honest, if things wind up going this way, the Yankees probably aren’t advancing to the ALCS and not having a thirteenth pitcher on the roster won’t be why.

An extra bench piece feels more necessary, especially on a roster that might be carrying pinch running candidates like Gary Sanchez, Austin Romine, Luke Voit, Edwin Encarnacion, Mike Ford, and even DJ LeMahieu or Giancarlo Stanton off a knee injury. A late game defensive replacement for Stanton in left or one of the first basemen at some point seems like a certainty. Lifting Didi Gregorius in a big at bat against a tough lefty like Taylor Rogers might seem like something that would get Aaron Boone excommunicated by the Yankee faithful, but Didi hasn’t been himself since coming back from Tommy John, and wouldn’t you rather have Edwin Encarnación’s career .374 wOBA and 132 wRC+ or Luke Voit’s .373 and 135 against lefties over Didi’s .295 wOBA and 82 wRC+ in that spot? That means sliding Torres over to short and either LeMahieu moving to second (in the event he starts at first) or Tyler Wade immediately coming in for Encarnación. With only a three-man bench, one of whom is your backup catcher, Aaron Boone seems extremely limited in his ability to make those types of moves.

Verdict: Thirteen position players and twelve pitchers.

2. Luke Voit vs. Edwin Encarnacion vs. Mike Ford

When the Yankees added Edwin Encarnación in June, it seemed like an exercise in excess. A team stacked with power and Luke Voit putting together a solid follow-up to his 2018 Yankees debut didn’t seem to need another slugger at 1B/DH. With Encarnación attempting to return from an oblique injury without seeing live pitching and Voit mired in a 1-for-32 slump since September 15th and slashing .200/.319/.338 since returning from the injured list on August 30th, first base depth has unexpectedly become an issue.

The Princeton University product Mike Ford stepped up in a big way in the second half. In thirty-nine games since August 4th, Ford has slashed .274/.333/.619 with eleven homers. In addition to his MLB breakout, Ford put together a phenomenal season at AAA. He hit for a .419 wOBA and a 151 wRC+, which ranked him ninth in that category among all AAA hitters with at least 250 plate appearances in 2019. Here’s how Ford’s 2019 stacks up against Voit’s and Encarnación’s.

MetricLuke VoitEdwin EncarnaciónMike Ford
PA510486163
wOBA.360.362.372
wRC+126129134
DRC+118132125
xwOBA.365.359.359
Exit Velocity89.7 mph90.0 mph91.9 mph
Exit Velocity FB/LD95.4 mph94.4 mph92.4 mph
Launch Angle12.8 degrees22.5 degrees15.6 degrees

These numbers are all extremely close, although Voit and Eddie have obviously done it over a much larger number of plate appearances. Let’s look at some fielding numbers from 2019.

MetricLuke VoitEdwin EncarnaciónMike Ford
Innings706.1489.0217.0
DRS-6-1-1
UZR-3.9-0.9-1.5
UZR/150-11.9-1.8-11.6

It might surprise you to see that Encarnación is the clear favorite in fielding metrics, but he’s actually rated around average at first base since the start of 2015. Against the Twins probable Game 3 starter Martín Pérez, if Encarnación is healthy enough to make the roster, that allows the Yankees to sit Gregorius, play Torres at short, LeMahieu at second, and stack the lineup with righties against the lefty without losing much in terms of defense at first base. Perez’s 2019 and career splits against righties and lefties are below.

Date Range2019Career
wOBA Allowed vs. R.353.352
wOBA Allowed vs. L.260.283
FIP vs. R5.134.81
FIP vs. L3.023.34

You get the feeling that, if Encarnación is 100% after simulated games on Tuesday and Wednesday (and he apparently is), the established slugger is going to have a spot on this playoff roster. Despite not playing against Texas over the weekend, the New York Post reported that Eddie was showing plenty of power in batting practice last week. This decision is likely between Voit and Ford.

Let’s take a closer look at Voit’s slump. Since August 30th, he’s hit for a .295 wOBA. In that same time span, Ford has hit for a .448 wOBA. But those numbers aren’t telling the whole story. When looking at xwOBA (expected wOBA based on exit velocity and launch angle of batted balls), things get closer: Voit’s xwOBA is .342 since his return from the IL, and Ford sits at .380.

Voit’s slump has been at its deepest since September 15th. His 1-for-32 mark translates to an absolutely abysmal .133 wOBA. Ford’s wOBA over that span: .520. But let’s account for some batted ball luck and take another look at xwOBA to assess quality of contact: Voit’s xwOBA still isn’t pretty, but it’s an improvement at .256. Ford clearly saw some good luck over the last two weeks of the season as his xwOBA was just .327.

Exit velocity can often be an indicator of a hitter’s health. The concern may be that Voit is still suffering from the abdominal strain that landed him on the IL. His average exit velocity on batted balls since August 30th is 91.1 mph, higher than his season average and equal to Ford’s over that time frame. Since September 15th, Voit’s average exit velocity is 91.8 mph. Below is a graph from Baseball Savant showing his rolling exit velocity, which has been rising steadily since his return (the point almost directly between the 225 and 250 marks on the x-axis).

There are a few things to conclude from the discussion above. First of all, Voit’s slump has appeared worse than it actually has been. While he’s definitely struggled, he appears to have also hit into some bad batted ball luck along the way. Secondly, Voit appears to be healthy: his exit velocity is in line with past performance and actually looks to be on the rise.

Mike Ford has had a lot of success in fifty games for the Yankees and at AAA this season. In addition to the numbers above, Ford has an above average walk rate at 10.4% (8.5% is average in 2019) and a strikeout rate much lower than the major league average (23.0% in 2019) at 17.2%. The Athletic’s Eno Sarris recently pointed out that teams that put the ball in play more often tend to fare better in the postseason. That fact certainly makes Ford slightly more attractive, especially compared to a 27.8% strikeout rate from Voit in 2019. But Ford’s success has still only come in fifty major league games. The Yankees have now witnessed 157 games and 658 plate appearances by Luke Voit against major league pitching. Here are Voit’s MLB ranks among the 318 hitters with at least 500 plate appearances since the start of 2018.

MetricLuke Voit (2018-2019)MLB Rank (min. 500 PA)
wOBA.38118th
xwOBA.38314th
wRC+14115th
ISO.23845th
BB%13.1%26th

Ford has been a big part of what has enabled the Yankees to withstand so many injuries and still win over 100 games, and he’s definitely an easy guy to root for. It hurts more than a little bit to leave him off the playoff roster, but expect the Yankees to bet on the larger sample size of dominant offense over the smaller one.

Verdict: Voit and Encarnación over Ford.

3. Maybin vs. Wade vs. Frazier

This one should be quick and dirty.

MetricCameron MaybinTyler WadeClint Frazier
PA269108246
wOBA.362.303.333
xwOBA.339.288.309
wRC+12788108
DRC+1067399
DRS0-3-8
UZR-0.2-1.2-5.2
UZR/150-0.2-16.0-16.7

Fortunately for Maybin, he’s the only legitimate fourth outfielder option here, so he walks right onto the postseason roster. His fielding metrics rate him as an average defensive outfielder this season, which neither Wade nor Frazier can say.

Frazier is a talented young hitter, but he hasn’t really shown much in 2019, and he certainly hasn’t fielded the position. According to Baseball Savant, Red Thunder has converted -13 outs above average in the Yankees outfield this season. He’s had particular trouble coming in on balls, where he’s rated ten outs below average. With a history of concussions, you might think that Frazier is playing deeper in the outfield to mitigate the danger of going back on balls at full speed, preventing him from getting to balls in front of him, but that hasn’t been the case. Below are Frazier’s starting depths in left and right field in 2017, 2018, and 2019 according to Baseball Savant.

SeasonAvg. Depth in LFAvg. Depth in RF
2017299295
2018304N/A
2019293296

It looks like Frazier did play deeper in left in 2018, but he’s played shallower in left in 2019 than ever before and about even with his past depth in right. Frazier’s sprint speed might be to blame for his poor fielding. After posting marks of 28.8 ft/s in 2017 (89th percentile) and 28.2 ft/s in 2018 (78th percentile), Frazier’s sprint speed has decreased to 27.4 ft/s in 2019 (61st percentile). According to Statcast, his fielding has deteriorated each year, but it’s reached a nadir in 2019. His -13% catch percentage added (the percentage of catches an outfielder makes above or below what an average outfielder would be expected to make based on the exit velocity and launch angle of batted balls hit to that fielder) ranks him last of 183 outfielders with at least fifty fielding opportunities. The next closest outfielder has recorded a -7% catch percentage added. If he’s not going to make an impact with the bat, the Yankees just can’t afford to roster Frazier in the playoffs.

Wade’s defensive numbers above are based on 98.0 innings in the major league outfield in 2019. Obviously, Wade has much more experience playing infield and rates about average at second, short, and third. He may not play even average outfield defense (Baseball Savant has him at -1 OAA and -4% catch percentage added), but his versatility in the field make him an asset, especially for a team that has toyed with the idea of using five infielders when Zack Britton’s on the mound. If you’re thinking about pinch running, Wade’s average sprint speed of 29.1 ft/s makes him the fastest Yankee and ranks him in the ninety-third percentile in the league. Actually, Terrance Gore is faster at 29.9 ft/s, but even Wade is a better option to take an emergency playoff at bat than Gore. Wade’s defensive versatility and speed give him the edge over Frazier.

Verdict: Maybin and Wade over Frazier.

4. The Bullpen

The Yankees have five studs in their bullpen that they feel comfortable with against both lefties and righties late in games: Chapman, Britton, Ottavino, Kahnle, and Green (who will likely open in Game 4). Right now, the field for the remaining three vacancies seems to include the following pitchers: Luis Cessa, Jonathan Loaisiga, Stephen Tarpley, Cory Gearrin, Ben Heller, and David Hale. According to Meredith Marakovits, CC Sabathia won’t be on the ALDS roster. Green could handle a slightly longer role in Games 1 or 2 if needed, but without Sabathia, the Yankees seem like they will need at least one long man out of this group.

David Hale only pitched in one uninspiring outing in the final weekend of regular season, and his success earlier in the year was mostly predicated on a low walk rate, unsustainably high infield fly ball rate, and unsustainably low home run per fly ball rate. Despite a 50.0% ground ball rate, all of that combined with a very below average 14.7% strikeout rate make it more likely than not that Hale’s results were more a house of cards than anything else.

Ben Heller had a nice run with an increase in slider usage in 7.1 innings pitched this September, but he wasn’t nearly dominant enough to earn himself a roster spot in such a short stint. His 1.23 ERA belies his 3.76 FIP and 5.06 DRA.

One strategy would be to use two of the last three roster spots on matchup guys. Tarpley and Gearrin are the Yankees most severe platoon options, and together, they might make up one very solid reliever.

MetricStephen TarpleyCory Gearrin
FIP vs. L (Career)2.284.90
K% vs. L (Career)41.3%15.8%
BB% vs. L (Career)12.7%12.9%
xwOBA vs. L (since 2015).247.342
FIP vs. R7.123.24
K% vs. R21.7%25.4%
BB% vs. R13.4%8.5%
xwOBA vs. R (since 2015).417.285

This idea is really attractive in theory, but it feels like a difficult one to pull the trigger on. Tarpley has only faced 63 lefty hitters at the major league level in his career, though the numbers are impressive at AAA since 2018 as well (0.99 ERA, thirty-five strikeouts, and nineteen combined walks and hits allowed in 27.2 innings pitched). His slider, which he’s thrown 47.4% of the time this season, is his only weapon (.270 xwOBA against); his sinker (.497) and four-seamer (.427), which sit between 92 and 93 mph, get absolutely hammered. Without CC on the roster, however, there could be a need for another lefty in the pen.

Since joining the Yankees on August 24th, Gearrin’s tenure has been unimpressive: a 4.79 FIP, 5.77 xFIP, 5.25 SIERA, 5.43 DRA, 111 DRA-, and 13.1% strikeout rate don’t scream playoff roster material. In 2019, his splits against righties have slipped a bit compared to his career numbers, as Gearrin’s seen a decrease in FIP (3.60), strikeout rate (21.4%), and ground ball rate (48.9% to 42.7%) and an increase in xwOBA against (.313) versus righties. A decrease in horizontal slider movement every year since 2017 (3.3 inches above average in 2017 to 1.1 below average in 2018 to 2.5 below in 2019) is probably a large part of what’s behind his declining effectiveness against righties.

When you look at his results compared to his stuff, Jonathan Loaisiga has certainly been a disappointment.

SeasonFIPSIERADRAxwOBAK%BB%
20194.954.345.33.32426.6%11.5%

Loaisiga throws a four-seam fastball 47.7% of the time with an average velocity of approximately 97 mph and 1.2 inches more rise than the average four-seamer at similar velocities, good for 100th among 432 qualified pitchers according to Baseball Savant. His curveball, which typically sits around 84 mph, apparently has below average drop but about an inch above average glove-side break (ninety-eighth of 275 pitchers). Despite a seemingly average movement profile, the curve has completely devastated hitters.

SeasonwOBAxwOBAWhiff%SwStr%
2018.291.21740.5%18.1%
2019.127.12145.8%20.3%

According to numbers available at Baseball Prospectus, Loaisiga’s four-seamer and curveball tunnel well together to both lefties and righties, which helps explain the effectiveness in the absence of elite movement. Let’s go to the tape.

The shape of Jonny Lasagna’s curve certainly looks like a high fastball out of the hand and buckles hitters as it starts to break sharply down and towards the left-handed batter’s box.

Remember when Lance McCullers threw twenty-four consecutive curveballs to close out ALCS Game 7 in 2017? This is a weapon you want in the playoffs. Loaisiga only threw his curveball 30.8% of the time in the regular season. Even though it has elite velocity and above average rise, his four-seam fastball consistently gives up loud contact (.423 xwOBA in 2018; .450 in 2019). Loaisiga is fairly predictable with the four-seamer. He uses it around sixty percent of the time on the first pitch and about half the time when even or with the batter ahead to both lefties and righties. With a four-seamer that doesn’t see great results and with a lethal curveball in his pocket, Loaisiga may want to consider pitching backwards more often and getting his curveball usage at least up over forty percent if not to around fifty. One final note on Loaisiga: since August 20th, he has started using a two-seam fastball around 18% of the time with decent results (xwOBA against of .329), which could be something to could an eye on. Control and command are certainly issues for Loaisiga, but his hammer is a powerful threat that the Yankees have to hope to harness in the postseason.

Without Sabathia, you likely need one more long man. In that case, Luis Cessa feels like the obvious choice. Cessa has eaten 81 innings for the Yankees in 2019 and has been fairly reliable if not unremarkable: a 4.87 FIP, 4.30 SIERA, 4.82 DRA, and a 21.9% strikeout rate. Cessa doesn’t really possess favorable splits with career FIPs of 4.52 and 5.30 against lefties and righties, respectively. His slider is his most effective pitch (.306 xwOBA in 2017, .218 in 2018, .245 in 2019), but he’s already throwing it 49.9% of the time in 2019. This version of Cessa appears to be his ceiling. The hope is that the Yankees only need the right-hander in mop-up duty in a blowout in their favor, but he will be useful to have in a deep extra inning game.

Give me Tarpley against a tough lefty in a spot where Boone isn’t quite ready to go to Kahnle, Britton, or Chapman or those options have already been exhausted, Loaisiga throwing curveball after curveball, and Cessa for length if and when the Yankees need it.

Verdict: Tarpley, Loaisiga, and Cessa in the bullpen.

The New York Yankees American League Division Series Roster

Position Players

PlayerPosition
Gary SanchezC
Austin RomineC
Edwin EncarnaciónIF
Luke VoitIF
DJ LeMahieuIF
Gleyber TorresIF
Didi GregoriusIF
Gio UrshelaIF
Aaron JudgeOF
Brett GardnerOF
Giancarlo StantonOF
Cameron MaybinOF
Tyler WadeUT

Pitchers

PlayerPosition
James PaxtonLHP
Luis SeverinoRHP
Masahiro TanakaRHP
J.A. HappLHP
Aroldis ChapmanLHP
Zack BrittonLHP
Adam OttavinoRHP
Tommy KahnleRHP
Chad GreenRHP
Jonathan LoaisigaRHP
Stephen TarpleyLHP
Luis CessaRHP

Hope For Happ

It would be a major understatement to call 2019 a disappointing season for New York Yankees left-handed starter J.A. Happ. After the Yankees acquired Happ from the Toronto Blue Jays at the 2018 non-waiver trade deadline, he went 7-0 in eleven starts with a 2.69 ERA, .676 OPS against, and sixty-three strikeouts to sixteen walks over 63.2 innings pitched. After that solid stretch run, Happ gave up five runs in two innings in an ALDS Game 1 loss against the eventual World Series Champion Boston Red Sox.

Since signing a two-year contract worth $34 million with a $17 million vesting player option for 2021, which triggers if Happ throws 165 innings or makes 27 starts in 2020, the thirty-six year old has been more ALDS disaster than solid stretch run for the Yankees. Below are his 2018 and 2019 numbers.

SeasonERAFIPK%BB%HR/FB%
20183.653.9826.3%7.0%13.4%
20195.105.3820.2%7.3%18.9%

Except for his walk rate, Happ’s seen his statistics deteriorate drastically across the board. Given the league-wide home run surge, his home run rate has not spiked as much as it appears, but it is still above the 2019 major league average. He has the second-worst FIP of all sixty-eight qualified starting pitchers after Seattle Mariners lefty Yusei Kikuchi. According to Statcast, Happ has seen his velocity diminish on most of his offerings as well. Happ throws an occasional curveball, but due to its infrequent use, it is not included in the table below.

Pitch2018 Avg. Velocity2019 Avg. Velocity
Four-Seam92.3 mph91.9 mph
Sinker90.4 mph89.5 mph
Slider85.3 mph84.8 mph
Changeup86.0 mph86.0 mph

The low point of Happ’s season was likely on August 9th at Toronto. He surrendered six runs over five innings on four hits, three walks, and three home runs. The 6’5 southpaw allowed a .467 xwOBA against for the game, the second-worst mark of his season other than his first start of the season against the Orioles on March 31st. The start against the Blue Jays raised Happ’s ERA to 5.48, and it would rise even higher before it would start to fall.

Over his next five starts, which include a start where he allowed five runs in four innings to the Oakland Athletics on August 21st, Happ is 3-1 with a 3.42 ERA, a .557 OPS against, three home runs given up, and twenty-nine strikeouts in 26.1 innings pitched. Here are his numbers before and after August 14th.

Date RangeERAFIPK%BB%wOBAxwOBA
3/31 – 8/95.485.6718.6%6.3%.350.335
8/14 – 9/73.424.0927.9%12.5%.255.261

Thirteen walks in 26.1 innings are responsible for Happ’s slightly inflated FIP, but he’s otherwise improved in every aspect. Happ is missing a lot more bats and inducing much weaker contact. The average exit velocity on the batted balls against Happ has decreased from 89.2 miles per hour prior to August 14 to 86.1 miles per hour from August 14th on.

The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler noted in an article over the weekend that Happ feels he’s in a better place mentally now than earlier in the season. Happ also seemed to credit throwing first pitch strikes more often for his recent success, which is puzzling given that his first pitch strike rate through August 9th was 57.9% and 54.8% from August 14th on. Even if you alter the cutoff to be August 21st, when Happ had his poor start against the Oakland Athletics, his first pitch strike rate up to and including that game was 57.3% and has been 58.1% after that start.

Happ might be enjoying a better mindset on the mound, but getting strike one more often doesn’t look like what’s driving his turnaround. The keys to Happ’s recent success appear to be some changes in his pitch mix and the location of his sinkers to lefties and his four-seamers against righties.

Date RangeBatter HandednessExit Velo.Launch AnglexwOBA
3/31 – 8/9Left87.1 mph5.9 degrees.295
8/14 – 9/7Left80.4 mph4.7 degrees.119
3/31 – 8/9Right89.9 mph15.6 degrees.348
8/14 – 9/7Right87.8 mph17.2 degrees.308

Happ has had better success against both righties and lefties in his recent five-game stint, and he’s really been stifling lefties lately.

Below are two tables from Brooks Baseball showing Happ’s pitch mixes from March 31st through August 9th and from August 14th through September 7th.

Against lefties, Happ has dropped the use of slider by nine percent overall and thirteen percent when he’s ahead in the count. He’s using his sinker and four-seamer more often in all counts, and his sinker has become his primary offering when he’s ahead of hitters, particularly with two strikes. With batters on the ropes in two strike counts, Happ’s increased his sinker usage against lefties by eighteen percent and dropped his slider usage by twenty-three percent.

Against righties, Happ has ditched his sinker for his four-seam fastball: his sinker usage against righties has decreased by thirteen percent to just five percent, and his four-seam usage is up from fifty-one percent to sixty-one percent. Happ’s upped his slider usage against righties by four percent overall and a whopping twenty-one percent on the first pitch. Maybe being more comfortable starting righties out with his slider is what he was referring to in his comments about the first pitch.

Let’s see how lefties have fared against Happ’s sinker.

Date RangeExit Velo.Launch AnglexwOBA
3/31 – 8/984.8 mph2.3 degrees.263
8/14 – 9/775.1 mph-21.6 degrees.102

The results are much better. Lefties are making worse contact on average and absolutely pounding his sinkers into the ground. Location might have something to do with the improvement.

In the heat maps above, you can see that Happ was leaving a lot of sinkers out over the middle of the plate to lefties. Lately, he’s done a much better job of getting the sinker inside on lefties, especially low and in just off the inside corner. That location is likely to get hitters to swing over the top of the sinker for more whiffs and get in on lefties’ hands for weak contact. Here’s J.P. Crawford with a swing and a miss on August 26th.

And Happ sawing off Matt Olson for an easy double-play on September 1st.

Finally, Happ gets Matt Olson to ground out weakly into the shift in the same game.

Let’s turn to righties against Happ’s four-seam fastball.

Date RangeExit Velo.Launch AnglexwOBA
3/31 – 8/992.0 mph27.8 degrees.369
8/14 – 9/788.3 mph31.8 degrees.220

Happ’s numbers have also vastly improved with the four-seamer against righties. It’s encouraging to see a higher launch angle here, as that means Happ has likely been seeing more lazy fly balls and less hard-hit line drives and fly balls.

Happ has made a massive shift in his four-seam fastball locations to righties. It looks like he’s targeting the upper middle part of the zone less often and looks to have taken aim at the outside part of the plate. Keeping the four-seamer away from righties rather than getting them to swing underneath the fastball might make some sense given the movement profile on Happ’s four-seamer this season.

SeasonVelo.V-MovVM vs. Avg.H-MovHM vs. Avg.
201892.3 mph14.7 in.1.6 in. (10%)7.1 in.0.0 in. (0%)
201991.9 mph15.4 in.1.1 in. (7%)8.1 in.1.3 in. (20%)

Happ’s four-seamer is dropping more in 2019 and doesn’t have as much rise as it did in 2018. That alone might make the middle-up location less effective for Happ in 2019 as hitters are less likely to swing underneath the old number one. In 2019, when the ball is leaving the park at record rates, throwing pitches in a spot that frequently leads to fly balls is probably not the greatest strategy if you aren’t missing a ton of bats.

While the rise on Happ’s fastball has decreased, the arm-side run on the pitch has drastically increased. He’s getting a full inch more movement away from right-handed hitters on the four-seamer, good for twenty percent more run than the average sinker in 2019. That increase in tailing action may make the outside part of the plate a smart location against righties, who are expecting the pitch to continue towards the heart of the plate but wind up seeing it dart back outside instead. That movement could be helping Happ get more whiffs and worse contact. Watch as Happ rings up Chad Pinder on August 21st.

Matt Chapman fails to pull this four-seamer on September 1st.

Xander Bogaerts flails at a four-seam fastball on the outside corner on September 7th.

Even before the newfound arm-side run on his four-seamer, you can see that Happ targeted the outside part of the plate with the pitch frequently in 2018.

It’s possible that the location of his four-seamers against righties had become too predictable in 2019. Whether it’s the movement, location, lack of predictability, or a combination of all three, Happ seems to have figured something out.

One other encouraging late-season trend has emerged for Happ: the lefty has also regained some velocity as the season has progressed. Below are charts from Baseball Savant detailing the average velocities on his four-seam fastball, sinker, and slider in each game this season.

J.A. Happ might be coming around at the right time for the New York Yankees. As rough of a season as it’s been for Happ, his recent success seems to be supported by some underlying changes that might make those improvements sustainable. If Happ’s success continues on today against the Detroit Tigers and throughout the rest of September, it might make sense to slot him in as the Yankees’ fourth starter in the playoffs and hope for a solid four or five innings before the bullpen takes over. Germán (5.68 ERA and 5.90 FIP since May 26th) might be hitting a wall and likely profiles better as a bullpen arm than Happ. If not, Happ’s recent numbers against lefties look really good from a lefty specialist out of the pen. At the very least, Happ’s recent run has given the Yankees front office a few reasons to look at him as a useful option on the playoff roster.

Torres Gets Comped

On Wednesday night, Gleyber Torres hit a home run to tie Gary Sanchez for the New York Yankees team lead with thirty-four. Despite injuries to Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton this season, that’s still an extremely impressive and unexpected feat for Torres. The twenty-two year old has followed up his rookie year, which earned him a third place finish in the 2018 Rookie of the Year voting behind Shohei Ohtani and Miguel Andujar, with another very solid campaign. Before starting a series with the Boston Red Sox on Friday night, Torres had a .283 batting average, .346 on-base percentage, and .540 slugging percentage in 2019, good for a .364 wOBA. The sophomore’s 128 wRC+ ranks him thirty-fifth among the 143 qualified hitters this season, ahead of players like Edwin Encarnacion, Ronald Acuna, Jr., Nolan Arenado, and Bryce Harper. Torres has shown steady improvement in 2019 over his 2018 performance.

SeasonPAHRAVGOBPSLGISOwOBAwRC+fWARbWAR
201848424.271.340.480.209.3491212.02.9
201953534.283.346.540.256.3641283.63.7

Torres has also made some notable improvements in his plate discipline and contact profile.

SeasonO-Swing%Z-Swing%Swing%
201834.4%68.7%48.4%
201934.8%76.8%51.8%

According to numbers available at FanGraphs, Gleyber’s chasing out of the zone at about the same rate, but he’s swinging at pitches in the strike zone much more often and, as a result, is swinging more often generally. Swinging more frequently at strikes has allowed Torres to make more contact.

SeasonO-Contact%Z-Contact%Contact%SwStr%BB%K%
201855.9%81.8%70.9%14.0%8.7%25.2%
201961.8%84.4%75.4%12.7%8.8%20.6%

Torres’ walk rate hasn’t really budged, but his strikeout rate has decreased significantly by 4.6%, likely due to his much higher contact rate on pitches outside of the strike zone and an overall increase in contact rate across the board. The heat maps below show that Torres is not only swinging at more strikes but also swinging at better strikes. First, from 2018.

And 2019.

Torres has consolidated his swings in the middle part of the plate where he’s likely to make better contact, particularly the lower-middle part of the zone. He has also laid off the inside pitch more often, especially low and in, and shifted those swings to cover the outside part of the plate. His increase in swings off the outside corner have also increased. Trading in swings at pitches off the inside corner for those off the outside corner may be the key to his increase in contact against pitches outside the strike zone.

Torres may have also made some progress on the defensive side of the ball. In 152 innings at shortstop in 2018, Torres had zero defensive runs saved and a -2.6 ultimate zone rating (UZR, a statistic that estimates the number of runs a player as saved or allowed on defense) for a -21.5 ultimate zone rating per 150 games played (UZR/150). In more than four times as many innings at short this season (636.2 innings), Torres has posted zero defensive runs saved and -2.0 UZR and -4.9 UZR/150, a big improvement over 2018. After 915.2 innings at second in 2018, Torres put up negative-one defensive runs saved, a -7.7 UZR, and -16.7 UZR/150. Four-hundred and forty-three innings there in 2019 have yielded negative-four defensive runs saved, a UZR of -2.5, and UZR/150 of -11.6, showing some mixed results for Torres. Advanced defensive metrics are still not as exact as we’d like them to be. Regardless, despite some potential improvement, defensive metrics still don’t identify Torres as a plus defender.

In addition to his overall production in almost two full seasons, the Yankees have to be thrilled that their twenty-two year old middle infielder has shown the ability to make adjustments and improve at the major league level. With the 2019 regular season nearing its conclusion, it makes some sense to take stock of what Torres has accomplished so far and what it means for him and the Yankees moving forward.

Comparing Torres’ performance to those of players who have come before him can give us an idea of what to expect from Gleyber in the future. Given that the Yankees will control Torres through the 2024 season with an extension, there seem to be three questions to answer: what can we expect from Torres in 2020, what can we expect from Torres from 2020 through 2024 (which will take him from his age 23 to age 27 season), and what can we expect from Torres in his career.

Torres has been an average fielder at best but more likely a slightly below average to below average fielder in 2018 and 2019, albeit at two premium defensive positions. To date, his value has largely come from his offensive ability. Entering Friday night’s game against Boston, in his age 21 and age 22 seasons, Torres has an average 125 wRC+. Below is a list of players who had an average wRC+ between 115 and 135 in their age 21 and 22 seasons (minimum 800 plate appearances), their wRC+ in their age 23 season, their average wRC+ from their age 23 to their age 27 seasons (weighted by number of plate appearances), and their average wRC+ in their careers.

Player21-22 wRC+23 wRC+23-27 wRC+Career wRC+
Alex Rodriguez128136153141
Darryl Strawberry128162148137
Freddie Freeman118150145N/A
Eddie Murray130130145127
Tim Raines116134144125
Christian Yelich118120141N/A
David Wright135132136133
Jack Clark129127135138
John Olerud118127134130
Juan Gonzalez125164133129
Bob Horner129125132126
Adam Dunn129109129123
Scott Rolen115140129122
Justin Upton120141126N/A
Cal Ripken, Jr.132146125112
Grady Sizemore118132123115
Tom Brunansky115110108106
Cody Bellinger129166N/AN/A
Mookie Betts122136N/AN/A
Manny Machado127131N/AN/A
Francisco Lindor116116N/AN/A
Average123135134126
Median125132134127

Cody Bellinger is not fully through his age 23 season, but he’s included here as an extra data point for the age 23 numbers since his age 23 season is substantially complete. Christian Yelich is also currently in his age 27 season, but he’s been included in the age 23 to age 27 group for the same reason.

Based on the above player comparisons, the future is a pretty rosy picture for Gleyber Torres. Three hall of famers in Eddie Murray, Tim Raines, and Cal Ripken, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez and Scott Rolen, who should be Hall of Famers, as well as players like Darryl Strawberry, David Wright, and Grady Sizemore, whose careers were on Hall of Fame trajectories before being curtailed for various reasons. We can likely expect Gleyber to be somewhere between thirty to forty percent better than average at the plate next season, the same over the next five seasons, and about twenty-five to thirty percent better than average over the course of his career. For a middle infielder, that’s exceptional. If you want to dream on Torres a bit, there are certainly some names on this list that provide significant upside given what Torres has done as a twenty-one and twenty-two year old hitter.

Prior to Friday’s game against the Red Sox, according to FanGraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), Gleyber Torres has recorded a combined 5.6 fWAR in his age 21 and 22 seasons. Dan Szymborski’s projection system ZiPS projects Torres for 0.4 fWAR for the rest of the 2019 season, which would give him a total of 6.0 fWAR in his age 21 and age 22 seasons. To give us a picture of what Torres’ future overall production might look like based on his performance as a twenty-one and twenty-two year old, below is a list of players who, since the start of free agency in 1977, accumulated between 4.0 and 8.0 total fWAR in their age 21 and 22 seasons with no more than 10.0 defensive runs above average total. Given Torres’ average to below average defense, the limit on defensive runs above average is meant to match Torres with players who have not derived a significant portion of their value from their play in the field.

Player21-22 fWAR23 fWAR23-27 fWARCareer fWAR
Tim Raines6.86.032.666.4
Scott Rolen4.07.028.569.9
Christian Yelich5.92.427.1N/A
Eddie Murray7.44.925.472.0
Miguel Cabrera7.56.325.170.8
Adrian Beltre4.84.023.984.3
Darryl Strawberry5.84.823.341.5
Alan Trammell4.73.623.063.7
Jose Canseco4.87.622.742.1
Roberto Alomar6.94.320.363.6
Justin Upton7.46.319.4N/A
John Olerud4.03.119.157.3
Jack Clark8.02.016.050.6
Jason Heyward7.13.115.5N/A
Adam Dunn6.31.614.625.6
Terry Puhl6.25.313.726.7
Juan Gonzalez4.95.713.635.8
Carney Lansford5.60.211.633.9
Bob Horner6.01.810.019.5
Rocco Baldelli4.00.04.08.0
Mookie Betts6.68.3N/AN/A
Cody Bellinger7.77.3N/AN/A
Xander Bogaerts4.74.9N/AN/A
Rougned Odor5.0-1.3N/AN/A
Average5.94.119.548.9
Median6.04.619.950.6

You definitely feel good about Gleyber Torres’ future when looking at this group. Hall of Famers Raines, Murray, Alan Trammell, and Roberto Alomar with future Hall of Famers Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre, and Rolen again. It also includes current stars Yelich, Betts, Bellinger, and Xander Bogaerts. When all of these players careers are finished, you could conceivably see half of them in Cooperstown, so it’s not surprising to see the kind of numbers you might be able to expect from Torres: between 4 and 5 fWAR next season, around 20 over the next five seasons, and around 50 in his career. And that’s about the 50th percentile outcome. A note on Miguel Cabrera: his career is not over yet, but it is at a point where he’s likely not going to accumulate much more value, so his career statistics have been included to give us more data.

Now, you might point out that a lot of these players played or play different positions than Torres does. Here’s a quick look at the list and numbers if we get rid of the first basemen and outfielders.

Player21-22 fWAR23 fWAR23-27 fWARCareer fWAR
Scott Rolen4.07.028.569.9
Miguel Cabrera7.56.325.170.8
Adrian Beltre4.84.023.984.3
Alan Trammell4.73.623.063.7
Roberto Alomar6.94.320.363.6
Terry Puhl6.25.313.726.7
Carney Lansford5.60.211.633.9
Bob Horner6.01.810.019.5
Xander Bogaerts4.74.9N/AN/A
Rougned Odor5.0-1.3N/AN/A
Average5.93.619.554.1
Median6.04.221.763.7

This is a list of infielders that you definitely want to be on. Half of the list is made up of Hall of Fame caliber players and the rest were or are, for the most part, very competent major leaguers. The average and median fWAR numbers are still outstanding.

According to FanGraphs, Torres has -8.8 defensive runs above average in his career. The last group of players was selected by looking at players who accumulated 10.0 or less defensive runs above average in their age 21 and age 22 seasons. What if we decrease that to 0.0 defensive runs above average?

Player21-22 fWAR23 fWAR23-27 fWARCareer fWAR
Tim Raines6.86.032.666.4
Christian Yelich5.92.427.1N/A
Eddie Murray7.44.925.472.0
Miguel Cabrera7.56.325.170.8
Darryl Strawberry5.84.823.341.5
Jose Canseco4.87.622.742.1
John Olerud4.03.119.157.3
Adam Dunn6.31.614.625.6
Juan Gonzalez4.95.713.635.8
Carney Lansford5.60.211.633.9
Bob Horner6.01.810.019.5
Rocco Baldelli4.00.04.08.0
Cody Bellinger7.77.3N/AN/A
Rougned Odor5.0-1.3N/AN/A
Average5.83.619.143.0
Median5.84.020.941.5

There’s a slight dip in the numbers as the group becomes less productive as fielders, but that’s probably expected. The decrease is sharpest in career WAR, likely due to the fact that many of these players, who were not great defenders to begin with, had to move down the defensive spectrum to first base or corner outfield spots as they aged. Regardless, this group still provides a very favorable forecast for Torres.

Gleyber’s age 21 and age 22 seasons also happen to be his first two seasons in the league, and you can probably tell where this is going. Using Baseball Reference’s version of WAR (bWAR), let’s see what we find when comparing Torres’ first two years in the show to the freshman and sophomore campaigns of other players.

According to Baseball Reference, entering Friday night’s game against the Red Sox, Torres has accumulated 6.3 total bWAR in his first two seasons. Even though the fWAR and bWAR are slightly different (they use different defensive metrics to measure defensive value), we’ll add the 0.4 WAR that ZiPS projects Torres adding over the rest of 2019 for a total of 6.7 bWAR. Again, we’ll want to limit Torres’ comps to ensure we don’t include players who derive a lot of value from their defense. Torres has accumulated a defensive wins above replacement component of 0.7 in his first two seasons. The group of players below are those who accumulated a bWAR between 4.7 and 8.7 with a defensive wins above replacement component between 1.7 and -0.3 in their first two years in the show (minimum 800 plate appearances) since 1977.

Player1 & 2 bWAR3 bWAR3-7 bWARCareer bWAR
Rickey Henderson7.96.736.2111.2
Ken Griffey, Jr.8.57.131.983.8
Chuck Knoblauch8.23.629.844.8
Mark Teixeira7.37.229.351.8
Christian Yelich5.73.627.2N/A
Jason Heyward8.45.522.7N/A
Giancarlo Stanton6.95.420.7N/A
Anthony Rendon6.50.420.5N/A
Travis Fryman5.44.918.634.4
Bryce Harper8.81.118.5N/A
Nick Markakis6.67.417.1N/A
Jason Kendall5.75.616.741.7
Marcell Ozuna5.30.513.9N/A
Ellis Burks8.23.513.449.8
Carney Lansford6.41.613.340.4
Colby Rasmus5.51.68.319.8
Oddibe McDowell5.51.94.510.7
Rocco Baldelli5.90.04.34.3
Cody Bellinger8.48.2N/AN/A
Alex Bregman5.66.9N/AN/A
Corey Seager7.75.7N/AN/A
Average6.94.219.345.3
Median6.64.918.641.7

This is an interesting group. It’s punctuated by two of the most elite talents to ever play the game in Rickey Henderson and Ken Griffey, Jr. at the top and peppered with some of the biggest names in the sport right now: Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper, Bellinger, Alex Bregman, and Corey Seager. The numbers are still great and very much in line with what we’ve seen: a bWAR between 4 and 5 next season is likely, around 19 bWAR over the next five seasons, and a really good shot at a career bWAR somewhere in the 40s. Let’s whittle this list down to just the infielders and see what we get.

Player1 & 2 bWAR3 bWAR3-7 bWARCareer bWAR
Chuck Knoblauch8.23.629.844.8
Mark Teixeira7.37.229.351.8
Anthony Rendon6.50.420.5N/A
Travis Fryman5.44.918.634.4
Carney Lansford6.41.613.340.4
Alex Bregman5.66.9N/AN/A
Corey Seager7.75.7N/AN/A
Average6.74.222.342.9
Median6.54.920.542.6

This group admittedly gets down to a pretty small sample, but it’s still probably somewhat useful, especially since the numbers we get are very much aligned with those that we’ve seen with the other player groups. The bottom line seems to be that, when comparing his performance to the performances of past players, Gleyber Torres’ future looks incredibly bright any way you slice it.

ZiPS appears to agree. Prior to the season, ZiPS projected Torres for 3.0 fWAR in 2019 (which he’s already surpassed), 4.2 fWAR in 2020, and 4.6 fWAR in 2021. About two weeks before the trade deadline, in their annual Trade Value series, FanGraphs ranked Torres as the twelfth most valuable player in all of baseball in terms of trade value and projected that he would accumulate 4.5 fWAR in 2020, 4.9 fWAR in 2021, 5.2 fWAR in 2022, 5.1 fWAR in 2023, and 4.8 fWAR in 2024 for a total of 24.5 fWAR from 2020 to 2024. Those numbers compare well with what our analysis found and are actually slightly better than that.

The surplus value is likely due to a component of the ZiPS projection system that incorporates Torres’ prospect grades. Baseball players are graded on their various tools on a 20 to 80 scale. Torres’ grades from before the 2018 season are stellar.

HitGame PowerRaw PowerSpeedFieldThrowFuture Value
40/5540/5555/6050/4040/5055/5560

The number before the slash is the player’s current grade at the time he’s scouted, and the number after is his projected grade once he’s fully developed. Future Value is the player’s overall grade. Players almost never receive 80 grades. As you can see, Torres doesn’t really have any standout tools, but he receives above-average grades across the board. Torres’ Future Value grade ranked him as the twelfth-best prospect prior to the 2018 season according to FanGraphs. Given those healthy grades, you can probably expect Torres’ production to skew closer to the top of the groups listed above as his career progresses.

The player groups above definitely include some cautionary tales (see: Rocco Baldelli). The careers of athletes are often more fragile than we realize and want to admit. That being the case, it’s important to enjoy what Torres is doing right now and not take it for granted. But it’s also exciting to think about having the opportunity to witness the entire career of what could be a generational talent. Who knows? In eighteen years, you could be watching another moment like this.