Tomorrow’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for: the non-tender deadline. In case the sarcasm didn’t come through: this offseason has been so slow and boring that the best we can look forward to is a day when teams cut ties with a bunch of players. To be specific, all players must be tendered a contract for 2021 by 8pm eastern tomorrow if they have not received one yet. This really just affects the arbitration eligible players set to receive substantial raises, though pre-arbitration (i.e. near league minimum) players must receive offers too.
Now, this year will be a little different than usual. Teams are more cost-conscious after a shortened and fanless season, so there’s an expectation that a bunch of players will hit the open market. There have even been rumors that stars like Kris Bryant could non-tendered, though that would really shock me. Still, there will be better players than usual added to this winter’s free agent crop.
As for the Yankees, the front office has decisions to make on eleven arbitration eligible players. I’ve grouped them into three categories: keepers, questionable, and doubtful in terms of the likelihood the Yankees tender them contracts. After that, I’ve added a poll question for you to pick who you’d non-tender. Let’s get to it.
Clint Frazier, Chad Green, Aaron Judge, Jordan Montgomery, Gleyber Torres, Gio Urshela, and Luke Voit aren’t going anywhere. All will play important roles on the 2021 squad. The projected arbitration salaries are bargains for this group. There’s really nothing more to add here.
If it feels incredibly early to start thinking about 2021 projections, that’s because it is. Last year, we started this series in January. This year, we get an early start merely as a result of the ZiPS projections for the Yankees last week. It just so happens that the Yankees were on the early end of FanGraphs’ release schedule this time around. Of course, the roster will change by spring training. Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t peek at how things stand right now.
The graphic adds up to +49 WAR. That’s a 97 to 99 win team, keeping in mind that a replacement level club is said to win between 48 and 50 games. Adding up the WAR is incredibly dumb far more often than not, and I must say that calling the current Yankees club a near-100 win team seems like a stretch. That’s without DJ LeMahieu, Masahiro Tanaka, and James Paxton, after all. I guess it speaks to this team’s high-end talent.
Similar to last year, I’m going to call out some notable projections. Ones that I think sell the player short, ones that are too aggressive for my taste, ones that feel just right, and some surprises. Let’s get to it:
Betting the over
Hitter: Gio Urshela has hit .310/.358/.523 (133 OPS+) with 27 homers in 650 plate appearances since joining the Yankees. ZiPS, however, doesn’t seem quite ready to fully buy in on the 29 year-old third baseman. The system projects a triple-slash of .283/.331/.459 (110 OPS+) and 18 homers in 508 plate appearances. A good offensive projection, but I presume that ZiPS is scarred by Urshela’s pre-Yankees offensive performance. Urshela might regress a little bit, but there’s nothing that indicates him taking as big of a step back as ZiPS estimates. Not only have Urshela’s results been good, but he’s made mechnical adjustments and is a Statcast darling. This is an easy over for me.
The calls to replace Gary Sánchez behind the plate aren’t new to this year. He’s been the most scrutinized player on the roster for a few years now. But this time, moving on from him actually seems possible. Especially when the team’s general manager says so. In a press conference last week, Brian Cashman addressed the catching situation: “We’ll evaluate that particular position because we’ll be forced to now as we move forward…but, ultimately that will be a subject that we have to discuss as well and it could very well be a change. It could very well be a competition.”
By “forced to”, Cashman is pointing to Sánchez’s dreadful 2020. The catcher hit .147/.253/.365 (69 wRC+) in 178 plate appearances and struck out 36 percent of the time. Defensively, the new catching stance didn’t take. Gary ranked in the 37th percentile in Statcast framing and he allowed 5 passed balls (after 7 in a full season in 2019). This isn’t the first time Sánchez has had a bad season (hello, 2018), but this year may have pushed the Yankees’ over the edge. The problem: it’s not easy to find good and readily available catchers in baseball.
Breaking balls aren’t easy to hit. The entire league knows this. The Yankees know this. So, why bother swinging at them? That’s apparently the approach the Yankees are taking this postseason. And so far, so good. The Bronx Bombers have tallied 31 runs in 3 playoff games against some of the league’s top pitchers. Against pitchers with great breaking balls, mind you.
The Yankees have already defeated Shane Bieber and Blake Snell, two pitchers with elite breaking balls. Tonight, the offense faces another hurler with a terrific curve in Tyler Glasnow. Why not make it three-for-three? It’s going to be a very similar challenge to what they’ve already faced, after all. Bieber, Snell, and Glasnow all garner elite whiff rates on their breaking pitches. In fact, they had the top three whiff rates against their breaking balls (min. 100 pitches) this season:
Whiff Rate (%)
All three of these guys have some of the best curves/sliders in the game, but the Yankees’ approach has been impeccable to date.
Let’s take last night, for example. Snell threw 13 of his 20 breaking balls out of the zone, per Statcast, and the Yankees offered just twice. Both swings were by DJ LeMahieu. I don’t know if Snell had a tell or if the Yankees are simply locked in, but that’s damn impressive. Especially since Snell had a 37.9 percent chase rate against his curveball during the regular season. Further, the Bombers only went after three breaking balls in the zone. The memorable ones: Aaron Judge’s dinger and Aaron Hicks’s sacrifice fly. The other was a 6-3 groundout off LeMahieu’s bat.
Gerrit Cole gets the ball tonight in what will be his final regular season start. In all likelihood, Kyle Higashioka will catch him this evening. Higgy has caught Cole’s last three starts, all of which have been excellent performances from the ace. The Yankees have yet to put an official label on it, but it sure looks like Higashioka is Cole’s personal catcher. Should that hold, Gary Sánchez will be on the bench for Game 1 of the postseason. The numbers for Cole throwing to the two catchers are jarring:
Catcher ERA typically is not indicative of much, but considering how stark the results are between the two backstops and Sánchez’s lack of hitting this season, it’s become a pretty easy decision to make. Stuff-wise, Cole doesn’t look any different with either catcher behind the plate. That said, there are some differences worth pointing out that perhaps Gary can take into account for 2021.
When I last wrote about Cole, hitters were teeing off against his fastball. I surmised that a big problem was his inability to throw his secondary pitches in the strike zone, making it easier for batters to sit fastball. I guess I was wrong. Here’s a heatmap of Cole’s secondary offerings in his last three starts, all with Higashioka behind the plate.
And yet, Cole’s fastball has been even more effective despite a lack of curves, sliders, and changeups in the zone. With Higgy, batters have a .241 wOBA and .268 xwOBA against Cole’s fastball. With Gary, opponents’ wOBA is .343 and xwOBA is .366 against the heat. Huge difference.
Perhaps it wasn’t as simple as just being able to wait for Cole to throw a fastball since nothing else was going to be a strike. Rather, it appears that pitch usage with Higashioka behind the plate is not as predictable as when Sánchez has caught Cole. Let’s start with overall pitch selection:
Fewer fastballs and a little more balance in the slider/curve department when Higashioka catches. Let’s now go to when Cole falls behind in the count:
Now here’s a massive difference. 1-0, 2-0, 3-1…whatever the count may be, hitters could bank on a heater coming with Gary catching Cole. Not so much with Higashioka. Alright, how about when Cole’s ahead in the count?
Fastball usage is pretty similar here. If anything, Higgy has been more willing to have Cole throw his curve, whereas Sánchez went more slider heavy. Finally, let’s look at even counts.
Again, Higashioka seems to favor the curveball a bit more than Gary. Here’s a visual breakdown of count and pitch usage by catcher:
Overall, it’s evident that Higashioka has called a less predictable game with Cole on the mound as compared to Sánchez. In fairness, we can’t assign 100 percent of the credit or blame to Cole’s battery mates for pitch calling. He can shake them off he wants, you know. Still, the results with Higashioka have been much better and there is a noticeable difference in how Cole has attacked hitters with Higgy behind the plate. The fastball isn’t as hittable and the overall numbers are great.
I’ve been a staunch defender of Sánchez, but I can’t argue for him in favor of Higashioka with Cole on the mound at the moment. If Gary was raking, it might be a different story. I know he’s hit better of late, but it’s not enough to convince me that catching him over Higgy in Game 1 is the right move. It’s a bit easier to stomach Higashioka in the lineup now that the offense is at full-strength, too. This situation can be reassessed next year, but for now, it’s time to pair Higashioka and Cole for the rest of 2020.