Mailbag: Ottavino, Gardner, Romine, Gio, Frazier, Happ

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Very weird that the Yanks are off on a Friday, isn’t it? It’s weird. This whole London trip, while cool and all, has me all thrown off. Anyway, it was another very productive week in Yankeeland, as the team capped off a 9-1 homestand with a sweep of the Blue Jays. The only loss was to Justin Verlander and the Astros. What can you do about that?

Though they lost Stanton (again) to injury, the Yankees have a 7-game loss column lead over Tampa Bay in the division. Anyway, here’s this week’s mailbag, with 5 great questions. As always, send us an email at viewsfrom314 [at] gmail [dot] com or use the contact form at the top of the page to ask a question.

Jonathan asks: Adam Ottavino is a pleasure to watch. That slider seems to defy the laws of physics. Is there an analytic tool we have to see how late and how much the slider breaks relative to every other pitcher’s slider. Additionally,  what’s with the walks? Is this just who he is and it comes with the slider or can we expect better control?

Jonathan is onto something. Look at those GIFs. They look fake. Let’s start out by recognizing the obvious: Adam Ottavino is ridiculous. It certainly does seem like his slider defies the laws of physics, which adds to the fun of watching him. It’s like he’s throwing a whiffle ball out there. I mean, look:

As it happens, we can measure his slider movement. There are two ways to track pitch movement: vertical and horizontal break, which is self-explanatory. Vertical movement measures the drop in a pitch from release to the plate–all pitches drop at least a little, thanks to a little thing called gravity–and horizontal movement captures the side-to-side action.

Here’s how Ottavino’s slider compares to the league average in terms of vertical drop the last 3 years:

  • 2017: 2.8 inches more than average, 7% difference (way above average movement)
  • 2018: 0.2 inches more than average, 0% difference (league average movement)
  • 2019: -0.6 inches less than average, -2% difference (below average movement)

That’s some pretty strong variance over the 3 years, but the trend is that the slider is dropping less over time. Check out his horizontal movement, though:

  • 2017: 9.8 inches more than average, 140% difference (insanely good movement)
  • 2018: 8.5 inches more than average, 107% difference (insanely good movement)
  • 2019: 10.5 inches more than average, 142% difference (otherworldly movement)

Here it is in graph form:

Hot damn, Ottavino’s pitches move a lot.

What does this mean? Well, it means that Ottavino’s slider really is special. The pitch this year is moving 10.5 inches (!!!) more than a comparable slider is. It’s got almost 18 inches of break total. That’s insane. Absolutely insane. That’s why the pitch is so effective, generating a swing-and-a-miss somewhere between 35-40% of the time over the past 5 years. Insane.

For what it’s worth, Ottavino, who loves analytics, has discussed how pitching away from Coors Field has impacted his movement. Turns out it’s a lot, and I do think that has something to do with his walks. When you have a pitch move that much, it can sometimes end up being really easy to lay off–it moves way out of the zone, for instance. Ottavino has always struggled with walks in his career, walking more than 10% of all batters faced. You have to think that, like the strikeouts, it’s connected to the movement on his pitches (and it’s not just the slider, check out his Statcast profile). It’s just who he is.

Tyler asks: What do you think the plan going forward will be with 2 of the Yankees longest tenured vets: Romine and Gardner, both for this season and beyond? Do you see the Yankees upgrading at backup catcher before the trade deadline, and do both walk in free agency?

Let’s start with Romine. The Yankee organization loves him, but he’s simply not performing at all in 2019. He’s hitting .218/.233/.307 (38 wRC+), which means he’s essentially a zero at the plate, and his defensive value has always been a little overrated. Not to mention, despite his undeserved love from a certain section of fans, Romine is a career 226/.269/.341 (61 wRC+) hitter. I know he’s the backup catcher and all, so it’s not really worth complaining about him, but it’ll be tough to imagine the Yankees won’t look for an even marginal upgrade here. Even with the depleted state of the catcher position league-wide, I don’t expect that to be tough to find.

As for Brett Gardner, I don’t really know. I do think that this is his final year in pinstripes, but honestly, I thought so last year, too. But I think we’ve seen this year that Gardner really can’t handle an everyday workload. Even before his annual second half slide (I think we should all just accept it), he’s hitting only .231/.313/.431 (95 wRC+) on the season. The second half could get very, very ugly. Maybe not, but his career numbers speak for themselves. Check out his career splits:

  • First half: .270/.352/.417 (.769 OPS) in 851 games
  • Second half: .243/.329/.356 (.685 OPS) in 583 games

The pattern is clear. Gardner is much better in the first half, and this year, his first half was demonstrably worse than normal. I’d expect that this is his final year in the Bronx, regardless of what happens with Clint Frazier.

As for the final part of the question, though, I don’t think they do anything about either at the deadline. Much, much more likely that they finish out their contracts and either walk or retire after the season. The Yankees would be weird without CC Sabathia, Brett Gardner, and Austin Romine, but such is life.

Peter asks: Has anyone else noticed that Gio has dropped off tremendously? It looks like ML pitchers have found the holes in his swing. Is it time to move him back down and place DJ at 3rd for the rest of the season? Does selection to the All-Star team make this too awkward for the team to do? What other options at 3rd do the Yankees have?

Here’s the thing to always remember about Gio Urshela: he has always been bad offensively. Real bad. Even including this year, this is his career line: .249/.299/.358 (75 wRC+). That’s not good. Here’s the year-by-year breakdown:

  • 2015: .225/.279/.330 (65 wRC+)
  • 2017: .224/.262/.288 (41 wRC+)
  • 2018: .233/.283/.326 (67 wRC+)
  • 2019: .303/.354/.458 (114 wRC+)

Giovanny has almost as many home runs this season (6) as he had in his entire career coming into 2019 (8). He was worth -0.7 fWAR before this year. He was always a glove-first player, which does have situational value and is why he has hung around the big leagues at all.

What Gio did earlier this season was nothing short of downright remarkable, in other words. The Yankees’ recent run of success when it comes to finding forgotten players and unlocking hidden talent (Luke Voit, Didi Gregorius, you know the drill by now) got a lot of people very excited with Urshela, and understandably so. But it’s important to remember that Urshela has always been a below-average hitter, and we’re starting to see that guy again now: he is hitting .226/.275/.403 (.679 OPS) over the last month. That’s more like the Urshela who’s always been around. Check out this graph of his rolling xWOBA, via Statcast:

That is what you call a downward trend, and not an unpredictable one. And honestly, it’s fine. That he performed like he did is a blessing in and of itself, and likely a testament to the Yankees’ analytical team and hitting coach Marcus Thames. I know I say this constantly, but the very productive at-bats Gio happened. They were real, they helped the Yankees, and you can’t take them back. Given his career, that’s pretty remarkable. It’s very 2019 Yankees, though.

As for what the Yankees will do with him now, I don’t expect them to do much unless he becomes a significantly worse hitter. His defense is so phenomenal that he offers something of value to the team. Remember Adeiny Hechavarría? Same story last year, though without the Andújar’s glove component this time. Not to mention, the Yankee offense is so damn good and relentless that having one or two guys who aren’t legitimate middle-of-the-order talents is okay. The Yankees will be fine.

George asks: With the Stanton injury apparently taking him out until August, how does this affect trading Frazier for pitching? Will they rotate Gardy and a healthy Maybin in the outfield?

The Stanton injury does seem to complicate the Clint Frazier plans, doesn’t it? You’d think, in theory, that the team would value his bat more now that Stanton will be sidelined for a while. But I don’t think that’s how the Yankees operate. Hear me out.

Frazier has been at the center of Yankee trade rumors several times over the last two seasons, always for an elusive starting pitcher, and yet he’s still here. As much as I do think there’s some friction between the player and the team in this case, it is simply not the Yankees style to dump a player for minimal value. Look at how long it took them to move Sonny Gray.

I have no doubt–absolutely no doubt at all–that if the Yanks don’t find a good starting pitcher for whom to move Frazier, they simply won’t move Frazier. Similarly, I don’t think that the Stanton injury will change that calculus. The Yankee offense has been buttressed by the acquisition of Encarnación for exactly reasons like this. As important as Stanton is, as long as the Yankees don’t suffer any other serious injuries, the offense will survive until his August return. There’s only one shot to get a difference-making SP, though, and that shot will come before Stanton returns. If Frazier has to go to make that happen, he’ll go.

Michael asks: In a recent post, Derek outlined how the Yankees could skip Happ’s next start or two. While I like this idea, shouldn’t it also be considered for Paxton given his struggles/injury concerns?

I know a lot of people have concerns with Paxton still being hurt, and he personally insinuated that his knee wasn’t 100% before he returned, but I have a hard time believing that the Yankees rushed him back. I say that only because I really, really hope that they didn’t rush him back. That would have been phenomenally irresponsible and quite out of character for the Yanks, in my opinion.

It’s true that Paxton has struggled since returning. Here are his stats in his 6 starts since he came back:

  • May 29 – June 26: 2-1, 6.08 ERA (5.62 FIP), 32 H, 18 ER, 6 HR (19.4% HR/FB%), 15 BB (12.1% BB%), 29 K (23.3% K%) in 26.2 innings.

That’s not good! Way too many walks, too many home runs, too much of basically everything, except strikeouts. The strikeouts have been good. Here’s a graph of the xWOBA against him in 2019:

He’s been noticeably worse. No denying it. As for skipping him, though, I wouldn’t do it. Assuming he’s healthy–something I will do until told otherwise, as I hate, capital-H Hate the “he’s injured” excuse for bad performance–the Yanks just have to keep throwing him out there. This isn’t a guy like Happ who looks over the hill or seriously declining. He’s an excellent pitcher in the middle of his prime going through a rough patch. And even during this stretch, he’s still had good games.

He’s too good to skip, and he’s too important for the Yankees not to get right. Right now, he’s the second-best pitcher on the staff (I am and always have been a Masahiro Tanaka fan) and the Yanks’ staff isn’t deep enough to excuse skipping Paxton unless he’s hurt. Besides, if they’re going to play with the schedule to limit one starter’s appearances–and let’s be real, they can only do one–ask yourself this: would you rather that be J.A. Happ or James Paxton? Who would you rather see on the mound? That’s what I thought.


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  1. Bobby,

    Players play hurt all the time. I think the Yanks rushed back Sanchez last year and their timetable on Judge was wildly optimistic. I think most players have an internal drive to want to get back asap, and the org wants them back asap as well.

    Also, I think the owners and FO’s are much more inclined to look at these guys as short term assets. Paxton is only signed through next year. If he says he can go, they don’t ask too many questions.

    Paxton hasn’t had his best fastball since his return. I haven’t looked at stats relating to his command and location the last 6 starts, but his performance is enough for me to believe the knee is the reason he isn’t at his best.

    I give him a ton of credit for pitching like he is and not making excuses. I wish he didn’t have to do so. Time to go back to 154 game season.

  2. lightSABR

    I think the vertical break stats are all compared to the normal ballistic trajectory you’d get without any of the crazy spins they use. That’s how four-seamers can have positive vertical break–they’re not actually rising as they reach the plate, but they drop ten inches less than the normal arc of a thrown object.

  3. Your a Looser Trader FotD

    I’d rather Patrick Corbin be on the mound.

    • Would Corbin pitch behind Scherzer or in front of him?

      • Your a Looser Trader FotD

        I think he’d stand on his shoulders. More sink on the sinker that way.

      • SM

        Cashman is a good but not great GM, but looking at his recent trades for Gray, Happ and Paxton, what is the reasonable basis for having confidence that he can make a good trade for a top starting pitcher,

        • Brian M

          There was no reason to believe Gray wouldn’t have the mental fortitude to play in NY (and the guys we traded for him have done nada for the A’s). Happ was actually really good last year after the trade except for the last month, and getting Paxton was a no brainer trade at the time. I still think Paxton will be good. As for Happ, re-signing him was probably a mistake given his end of 2018 performance.

        • I think Hal’s budget has forced Cashman to try these half measures.

          Cash had zero problem spending the Boss’s money. Cash has to operate differently now and tout a new party line.

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