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Thoughts After the Rays Trade Blake Snell

Baseball’s offseason had its first major moment late last night, when the defending American League Champion Rays shipped off their best pitcher to the National League:

This was unsurprising – it was rumored weeks ago – and it is such a Rays Move™ that it is almost a parody. Still, this move has huge implications for the Yankees. I have a few thoughts. Let’s get into them.

1. The Rays are a Disgrace: Hating on the Rays is something of a brand around here, but I want to be extremely clear: the Rays are a blight on the sport. This trade is just the latest example of their cynical front office philosophy – a philosophy that has spread to other front offices like a disease. In fact, it’s probably the most egregious move they’ve made in some time.

The Rays are coming off the most successful season in franchise history after losing the World Series in 6 games to Los Angeles. (Previously, in 2008, they lasted just 5 games in a defeat to Philadelphia.) There are legitimate reasons to doubt their sustainability, but Tampa was poised to make another title run. Instead, they shipped off a top-shelf starter for players who will (perhaps) help them tomorrow.

It is not a mystery why they did this. Remember when they signed Snell to a five-year, $50 million contract extension prior to the 2019 season? Look at how those salaries broke down:

  • 2019: $1 million
  • 2020: $7 million
  • 2021: $10.5 million
  • 2022: $12.5 million
  • 2023: $16 million (up to $18 million with incentives)

As blatant a cost-cutting move as you can imagine. And for a very good starter who will, at no point over the course of this deal, even earn the single-year value of the qualifying offer. Unconscionable. I’ve argued before that every single move the Rays make needs to be evaluated in the context of their cheap-ass front office strategy. Even the Snell extension deserves that treatment. In my view, that contract was crafted in such a way to boost Snell’s future trade value, not keep him in Tampa. By removing the financial uncertainty of arbitration, the Rays would have an easier time moving him before he got a real raise. That is exactly what happened.

To be fair, you could also argue that Snell was so disaffected by his usage in Game 6 of the World Series that he wanted out. I find this unconvincing and unpersuasive. It doesn’t even make the Rays look better, either. Snell’s World Series usage was quintessential Rays – a cut from a certain analytical cloth. It was a bad but unsurprising decision, given the way the Rays treat pitching. If they can’t get buy-in from the best players on the roster for that approach, that’s not a good look, either.

2. Enough with the Rays Magic: I am also extremely sick of everyone automatically giving the Rays the benefit of the doubt. They do not deserve it. The old Sam Miller adage, now six years old, still applies to the baseball media writ large, and it is infuriating. Since the Rays did it, it has to be Smart and Justified. Here is a perfect example of this mindset:

This reads like parody. It’s actually a pretty pernicious philosophy and justification of a cheap-ass framework, though. This attitude is actively corrosive to baseball. (There are others, too. I am not just picking on Matt. His tweet was just illustrative.)

It is true enough that the Rays have been very good for a while. They do have that many wins, and that’s great for them. It is also true that they operate within tighter financial restrictions than many other teams. This means they’ve had to be creative. We all know this. In other words, it is impressive that they’ve managed to be competitive – but we should not go too far in our effusive praise. (It’s also worth asking if their trade history on these sorts of moves is actually as good as people assume.)

Matt’s point above was intended to praise the Rays, but I actually think that it raises a separate, unintentional question: what if the Rays weren’t so cheap? By augmenting undervalued players with high-end talent – something the Dodgers have done and the Yankees try to do – they would have been even better. (Imagine if they signed DJ LeMahieu in 2019!) But they don’t even need to go that far. They could just keep the good players they already have. Blake Snell is a good pitcher. They’d be lucky to develop another pitcher as good as him in the next decade. If they kept him around, or others like him in year’s past, maybe they would have won a World Series over this stretch. Or, as a consolation prize, maybe they’d even have some fans.

Sure, in this scenario, maybe they wouldn’t scrape out 90 wins every year and lose to a better team in the playoffs. But marginal spending increases would have allowed them to become that better team, for once – and baseball would be more fun as a result. Instead, they just always get slightly cheaper and slightly worse. A decade plus of marginal success is not enough to make that a justifiable philosophy.

3. Impact on the Yankees: Anyway, strictly from a Yankee point of view, this is good news. A major division rival just intentionally made themselves significantly worse for the second consecutive year. Snell is a flame-throwing 28-year-old lefty with a 76 ERA- in 550+ career innings, all spent in the American League East. He limits walks, misses bats, and performs in big games.

The Yanks have hit Snell in the past – he has a 4.31 ERA in 18 games – but still. Getting him out of here is fine with me. I’m not sorry to see him leave the division. It also certainly makes the path to reclaiming the AL East title a lot less thorny for the Yankees. The Red Sox and Orioles are total non-factors. The Blue Jays are up-and-coming, and may be formidable, but I don’t think their roster is there yet. Tampa will still be a challenge, but again, they’re much worse now.

Even as it stands right now, without DJ LeMahieu and with substantial rotational holes, the Yankees have the most talent in the American League East. That may have been true even if Snell stayed put. Without him, though, the Yankees should feel even better about their chances to win the division in 2021. I’d say that’s good news.

4. Next Steps for the Yankees: The Yankees should not waste this opportunity. If other teams are going to get worse, pinch pennies, and actively sabotage themselves, the Yankees should seize the day. There is no doubt every team is hurting financially, but the Yankees can weather the storm. Trying to win is now the new market inefficiency. (Look at what San Diego is doing! It’s so unusual.) They need to take advantage and not look back.

There is a case to be made for complacency. The Rays self-sabotage makes it more likely the Yankees win the division no matter what they do, so why not save some pennies in the recession? On the other hand, I think the new situat makes it more important, not less, to be aggressive. Winning the World Series is hard and requires a bit of luck – so why not try to create some of your own?

The Yankees are lucky that their primary inter-divisional competition actively gets worse at every opportunity. They should not follow suit.

Chad Green’s (Almost) Great Season [2020 Season Review]

If the 2020 season was too short to fairly evaluate hitter performance, then it was definitely too short to evaluate relievers. So it is with Chad Green, who logged an inconsistent 2020 campaign for the Yankees. Green saw year-over-year declines in his strikeout, walk, and home run rates; left-on-base percentage; his earned run average; and his FIP. He even seemed to lose some zip on his fastball.

This all sounds alarming enough, but it was just 25 innings. He still struck out nearly a third of batters he faced, and threw over 95 miles-per-hour on average. More often than not, he looked every bit as dominant as we expect him to look. Most of his struggles came across just 6 innings, potentially enough to doom a reliever in a normal season. In 2020? Forget it.

Let’s get right into the good, the bad, and the ugly of Chad Green’s 2020 campaign.

A New Look

Chad Green’s success is not built on deception: he throws a high-spin, high-efficiency, and high-velocity fastball up in the zone an overwhelming majority of the time. (In 2017, when he was most dominant, he threw it 68% of the time, followed by 86% in 2018 and 77% in 2019.) It’s not difficult to see why. Check out this 2,500+ RPM, 95 miles-per-hour fastball against Jackie Bradley Jr. in July:

When you’ve got a fastball like that, you’d better use it. That said, the fastball reliance does leave Green with a weakness: when batters make contact, which is not often, he is prone to getting drilled. Try as he might, Green was never able to offer a competent secondary offering, despite toying with a slider and splitter during Spring Trainings past.

In 2020, though, Green brought a new look to Spring Training with a new curveball – and, for the most part, he stuck with it throughout the year. In fact, he threw it 25% of the time, which is the highest non-fastball usage Green has delivered since really arriving in 2017. The results were encouraging. Here was a daring example that demonstrates the new trust Green has in the pitch, thrown in an 0-2 count with runners on second and third to Rhys Hoskins:

Overall, the pitch was high-spin (~2500 RPM on average) and netted a 34% whiff rate, which easily makes it the best secondary offering Green has ever deployed. At the same time, batters still hit .240 against it with a .400 slugging percentage. Beneath the hood, the expected stats (.155 xBA and .182 xWOBA) suggest that the results would have improved in a full season.

As regular readers know, I am a big believer in Green generally and in his curveball usage specifically. The pitch makes sense as a secondary look for him, given that it plays well off a high-velocity fastball thrown up in the zone, and I thought the early returns on the pitch were promising. I’m excited to see how the pitch develops with a normal, uninterrupted offseason and over the course of a (hopefully) full 2021 season. There is every reason to be excited about the pitch, in my opinion.

6 Bad Innings Will Doom Ya

The season was far from all roses for Green, though. He logged 6.1 truly atrocious innings from August 26 to September 7. This is responsible for some of his uglier statistics on the year. In those innings, he surrendered 4 home runs on 8 hits and allowed 8 earned runs. You remember the September 7 game, if not by date. It was not just the low-point of Green’s year, but of the Yankees’, too. Green was a pivotal part of the never-ending bottom of the 7th in which the Yankees surrendered 10 runs in Buffalo. It was ugly.

This bad stretch, which is perfectly mapped over the worst stretch the team faced in 2020, plays a role in our memory. You are excused for forgetting that Green logged a 1.35 ERA in his final 6.2 innings after that game. I’ll forgive you for forgetting that he had a 0.71 ERA in the 12.2 innings before the bad stretch. In both of those periods, the peripherals were back to normal, too.

Alas, so it goes for a reliever. Bad weeks ruin stat lines. That is true in a normal season. And this was anything but a normal season.

What’s Next?

A full offseason and normal Spring Training that hopefully allow Green to further refine his curve. That would be nice. But even if he mostly repeats his 2020 performance, there’s plenty of reason to believe in Green. He was the same dominant reliever we all remember in 2020, aside from a bad week. It would have normalized over a full season’s worth of work.

I think the curveball is a promising development for his future. In short, I am looking forward to seeing Green pitch in 2021. He is one of baseball’s best relievers and for the majority of 2020, that’s exactly how he performed.

Aaron Judge is Great, When He’s on the Field [2020 Season Review]

Yankees at Orioles 7/10/18

The 2020 season was the perfect encapsulation of Aaron Judge’s career. It is clear that the Yankee right fielder is one of baseball’s best players. It is also clear, unfortunately, that the big slugger has issues staying on the field. He got hurt after hitting a home run against the Atlanta Braves on August 11, returned briefly on August 26 for a few innings in Atlanta before re-injuring himself, and then came back for good on September 16. All in all, he played in just 28 of the Yankees’ 60 regular season games. It was not what you want.

Let’s dive into Judge’s season, which was equal parts exhilarating and exhausting, shall we?

A Torrid Start

The start of the Yankees’ season this year was a blast, and Aaron Judge was a big reason why. In his first 68 plate appearances, carrying him through the August 11 calf strain, Judge hit .290/.343/.758 (190 wRC+) with a ridiculous 9 home runs. As expected, he was a key reason why the Yankees jumped out to an 11-6 start, logging a +0.93 WPA in just 17 games. He singlehandedly won a turbulent game in Baltimore, which put the Yankees back on track after a little mini-skid out of the gate. I’m sure you remember this, but here’s the video:

Just three days later, Judge was at it again in a Sunday night matchup against Boston. It was my favorite game of the season, personally, and this absolutely gargantuan blast is why. It was so predictable, which made it so much more fun:

That, my friends, is what I like to call “extreme 2017 Aaron Judge energy” right there. He kept it up for another week. Nearly half (44%) of balls he hit over the period registered as “hard-hit” per Statcast, meaning they left the bat at over 95 miles-per-hour. Of those, 17% were barrels, meaning he coupled that high velocity with the ideal launch angle. This was a function of laying off bad stuff (just a 26.9% rate of swinging at balls) coupled with absolutely pummeling balls in the zone (67.4% contact rate in the zone). It was a joy to watch.

It is important to remember all of this, given the next section: Judge is, without a doubt, one of baseball’s most talented players. There are no two ways about it. When he is clicking, he is actually as good as it gets. It was short-lived in 2020, sure, but we saw it in full force at the start of the season.

No, the Yankees Should Not Trade Luke Voit

Trading Luke Voit has become a conversation starter on the Yankees’ corner of the internet. Talk about the Yankees online long enough and someone will invariably bring up trading him. It makes some sense. Such a proposal shows a keen understanding of baseball economics: Voit’s pre-arbitration days are over, which means that he will collect a hefty raise this offseason. (MLB Trade Rumors estimates somewhere between $4-8 million, depending on the model.) Trade him now, in other words, and spend that money elsewhere.

It also seems to be a way to demonstrate creativity and to show a willingness to think outside of the box. A fan suggesting to trade Voit, who was one of baseball’s best players in 2020, shows shows that they are serious: as the old maxim goes, a realistic trade proposal is one that hurts both sides.

Unfortunately, it is also a very dumb idea. The Yankees should not trade Luke Voit. There are many reasons why, but let’s choose the three most obvious ones today.

Report: Yankees Exercise Zack Britton’s 2022 Option

Improving their bullpen should be a priority for the Yankees this offseason, and the first step is maintaining the very good baseline. It seems like they’ve done just that, as SNY’s Andy Martino reports that the team exercised Zack Britton’s option. Martino’s report follows a tweet from Britton himself a few minutes earlier, which seemed to break the news:

Remember, this keeps the 32-year-old lefty in the Bronx through the 2022 season. That’s technically what the Yankees exercised today: his 2022 option, not 2021. Had they declined, Britton would have had a player option for the 2021 season. He will earn $13 million in 2021 and $14 million in 2022.

This was a no-brainer for baseball reasons. The Yankees player union representative has a 2.14 ERA (3.82 FIP) in 105.1 innings pitched since joining the Bombers bullpen back in 2018. He has an obscene 76% ground ball rate over that period. Overall, the lefty has been a reliable addition to a formidable pen.

He kept up that excellence in 2020, with a 1.89 ERA (2.82 FIP) in 19 innings pitched for the Yanks. Britton’s 33% strikeout rate was a career high and likely a function of the short season, but perhaps not! Anyway, he was a rock-solid late inning option for Aaron Boone. Overall, Britton limits hard contact and induces the most ground balls in baseball, which helps him overcome a high walk rate.

Despite the obvious on-field value, this was still not a given. Cleveland declined Brad Hand’s cheaper option. St. Louis declined Kolten Wong’s. This is likely going to be the trend. Teams are crying poor. So, while Britton is worth the money, it is still an encouraging sign. I know we’re all pre-mad at the Yankees for some reason, but this is an early signal that they will not be as “fiscally responsible” as other teams.

Welcome back, Zack. The next step is for the Yankees to give him some new friends out there. Hand is a good place to start.

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