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Mailbag: 2021 rotation, Voit’s contract, COVID-19 opt-outs, and Urshela’s metrics

Got a few questions to answer as we head into the final weekend of the regular season. Before we dive in, remember to send your questions to viewsfrom314 [at] gmail [dot] com for a chance to be included in a future mailbag. Now, to this week’s questions:

A few people asked: What does the Yankees’ 2021 rotation look like?

People sure love to talk about next year’s team when this season isn’t over, huh? Nonetheless, I’ll oblige.

As you likely know, the Yankees can lose Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and JA Happ in free agency this offseason. That leaves a number of holes to fill, though the team does have enough big league caliber starters to fill out a staff. It just may not be as good as this year (or before this year). The players under contract for 2021: Gerrit Cole, Luis Severino, Jordan Montgomery, Domingo Germán, Deivi García, Clarke Schmidt, and Michael King.

Of course, there are caveats with the seven pitchers I just rattled off. Severino is recovering from Tommy John surgery and will start the 2021 season on the injured list. Germán will have just finished his suspension under the league’s domestic violence policy, so who knows how much rust he will have to shake off. Montgomery was a roller coaster this season. King was terrible. Schmidt will have just one big league start to his name entering 2021. At least Cole and Deivi looked great.

Now, if all goes well, that group could look pretty good by 2021’s end! Cole and Severino could make for a formidable one-two punch. García and Schmidt have a ton of upside. Germán and Montgomery are more than capable back-end guys, with the former having shown flashes of better than that in 2019.

That said, count on the Yankees reinforcing the rotation this year. For one, I’d bet on Tanaka’s return, but I expect Paxton and Happ to depart. Don’t expect any free agent splurges like Trevor Bauer to replace those guys, though. A trade or middle-market free agent (Kevin Gausman? Marcus Stroman? Mike Minor?) signing seems more likely. Here’s what I envision as the Yankees’ ideal rotation come Opening Day 2021:

  1. Gerrit Cole
  2. Masahiro Tanaka
  3. Trade/Free Agent
  4. Deivi García
  5. Jordan Montgomery

By season’s end, you can slot in Sevy. Forget about who that boots from the staff as that sorta thing always seems to sort itself out. Injuries and unexpected performances happen.

Paul asks: Should Luke Voit’s contract be extended?

Everyone at this here blog loves Voit, but this answer is a pretty easy no. Voit turns 30 in February and won’t be a free agent until after the 2024 season. It stinks for the first baseman, but he was a late bloomer who won’t hit the open market until his mid-thirties. That leaves the Yankees very little motivation to extend him beyond 2024 at the moment.

Voit’s now a lifetime 138 wRC+ hitter in over 1,000 big league plate appearances and should still get paid fairly well in arbitration. He’s going to be super-two eligible this offseason and should get a nice raise over the near league-minimum pay he’s gotten over the last couple of seasons. More traditional stats like home runs and RBIs pay in arbitration, and Luke’s got those aplenty.

Aside from age and team control considerations, I think Voit’s position and health are detractors from any extension. I just don’t see much of a reason to lock up a 1B/DH type when the team already has a number of those guys on the roster already. Additionally, though Voit has played through “foot stuff” this season, I can’t help but worry about his health over the long run. Last year’s oblique injury really held him back too.

Dan asks: I recall speculation before the season started that players who were on teams that were clearly eliminated would be compelled to opt-out, to avoid playing in meaningless games.  Obviously, that hasn’t happened.  Are you surprised at all?

I’m a little surprised, but I think that there are two big reasons we haven’t seen a bunch of opt-outs.

First, The expanded playoffs have definitely played a big part here. 21 of the league’s 30 teams are still alive with just three games remaining. Had the league stuck to 10 playoff teams for this season, perhaps we’d see a lot more guys bowing out early.

Additionally, perhaps players have become more confident in the league’s health protocols as the season’s gone on. The amount of positive tests and team-wide outbreaks has slowed down the stretch. Earlier this season, it was a lot easier to imagine players dropping out as playoff hopes dwindled because of the numerous positive tests and postponements.

All that said, one high profile player has opted out this week: Andrelton Simmons. The Angels (26-31) are technically still alive too, though it’ll take a lot going right for them to overcome the Astros (29-28) for second place in the AL West.

Jeremy asks: Gio Urshela is the man. I’m hoping you can help me understand something about his advanced stats (and advanced stats in general). His Exit Velo (86th percentile), xBA (98th), and xSLG (86th) are elite. Why are those stats so high when his Hard Hit% (56th) and Barrel% (48th) are fairly average? His K% (90th) is pretty elite but I feel like that only explains part of the xBA and not much of anything else. Is it more so because his GB%/FB%/LD% mix (38.3%/19.2%/38.3%) is seemingly much better than the MLB average (45.3%/21.9%/25.7%)?

It’s definitely strange that Gio’s hard hit percentage and barrel percentage aren’t up to snuff with his average exit velocity. I do think that Jeremy is on the right track with the batted ball type mix, but there’s one other thing I’d like to add.

ComparisonWeak %Topped %Under %Flare/Burner %Solid %Barrel %
Urshela0.826.725.031.77.57.5
MLB3.233.224.324.35.66.4

Gio’s distribution of batted ball quality is excellent. He may not have a ton of hard hits or barrels, but he almost never makes weak contact. He also doesn’t get on top of the ball too often either. Further, the “under” or “flare/burner” category isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Many of those are bloopers that dunk in. Better than a weak hit or chopper that’s almost an automatic out.

We should also keep in mind what this means for Gio’s hard hit and barrel percentages. Remember, a hard hit ball is 95 MPH or greater exit velocity in any direction. Grounders, pop-ups, or line drives can all get the same treatment under hard hit percentage. So just because Urshela isn’t great there doesn’t mean his exit velocity and xStats are inflated. Rather, it appears that Urshela’s distribution of hit quality helps him in the exit velocity department, while his launch angle helps him rarely hit into easy outs.

As Jeremy noted, Gio hits grounders well below league average and hits liners well above league average. Consider that with his hit quality distribution and elite bat-to-ball skills and you can see why Urshela’s had so much success.

Game 38: Orioles end the skid

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The Yankees dropped the second game of today’s doubleheader at Camden Yards, 6-3. The loss marks the end of the Yankees’ 19 game winning streak against Baltimore.

It’s late, it’s a Friday night, and it’s the second game of a doubleheader where the first game took nearly four hours. That means an abbreviated takeaways, bullet points style. Off we go:

  • The Orioles put Deivi García to work, despite just one player really getting to the rookie. The 21 year-old righty wasn’t as good as his first start, but he did a nice job nonetheless. He exited with two on and two out in the fifth and Ryan Mountcastle due up. The Yankees ahead 3-2. Those two runners did come around to score, leaving Deivi with a final line of: 4 2/3 innings, 5 hits, 4 runs, 2 walks, 6 strikeouts, and 1 homer. It wasn’t as efficient of an outing as last time out because the Orioles fouled off 23 of his 95 pitches. His big mistake: a two-run homer by Mountcastle in the 2nd inning. It wasn’t a bad pitch as it was in and off the plate. Boone probably didn’t want to let him see Deivi a third time, by the way. To close on a positive note: he showed nice poise after recovering from two fielding errors (one official) earlier in the game. He himself made an error and Miguel Andújar played a routine grounder into an infield single.
  • In retrospect, Clarke Schmidt’s debut should have been in a clean inning. Hindisght is 20/20, but Aaron Boone perhaps should have brought in Adam Ottavino instead of Schmidt to inherit Deivi’s two runners. It’s asking a lot to have Ottavino go for a third straight day, but I suppose he only wanted to use him if a save situation arose. Keep in mind Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Chad Green, and Jonathan Holder were all unavailable after pitching game one. Well, that save situation never came. Schmidt surrendered three straight hits upon entrance and the Orioles took a 6-3 lead, which wound up being the final score. Schmidt wasn’t hit hard though: the exit velocities were 75, 94, and 81 MPH. He escaped with his first career strikeout (Dilson Herrera), but struggled with his command in the sixth. We’ll just have to see Schmidt at his best his next time on the mound, preferably as a starter.
  • Seeing Erik Kratz get a big hit with Deivi starting was delightful. We know how fond Kratz is of tonight’s starter. He was emotional in discussing it before today’s games. So to pick up the rookie with a two-run single in the fourth inning, which gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead at the time, was nice to see. Not much more to add to that.
  • Miguel Andújar’s defense at thid base is — you guessed it — not good. I think many of us wanted to see Andújar back from the Alternate Site to give the offense a lift, but not under these circumstances. Rather than displace Mike Ford, Mike Tauchman, or Brett Gardner, he’s back as a result of Gio Urshela’s IL stint. As mentioned before, he turned what should have been an easy 5-3 into a base hit. He double-clutched before he threw, which gave Mountcastle enough time to beat the throw.

After almost 7 hours, this day of Yankees baseball is over. It’s a good thing the Bombers have a night game tomorrow. That starts at 7:35 p.m. EDT. Have a good night.

Another postponement complicates upcoming rotation

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As if the Yankees didn’t have enough games postponed already due to COVID-19, rain resulted in yet another last night. Straight doubleheaders used to be novel and fun, but now they’re annoying. Especially when the Yankees have to play three double headers by this Sunday and another on September 4th. It’s going to put quite the strain on this pitching staff, but it also might mean an opportunity for (you guessed it) Clarke Schmidt.

I’ve mapped out the Yankees’ schedule below, which is obviously subject to change given COVID-19 and the weather. Let’s just assume all goes well from here on out (lol). Here’s how I’ve laid it out:

The Yankees will need three To Be Determined starters over the next couple of weeks. Now, all three of these pitchers won’t be traditional starters. In reality, some of these games will be bullpen games. That said, I can’t imagine that the Yankees will want to throw back-to-back bullpen games on the August 30th and September 4th doubleheaders. I presume one of those starters are those days will be of the traditional variety. That’s where a prospect like Clarke Schmidt or Deivi García comes into play.

Quick aside: I think there’s a nonzero chance that García might actually be more likely to start before Schmidt. He’s already on the 40-man roster whereas Schmidt isn’t. I wrote about the 40-man roster crunch recently, by the way.

With that García note out of the way, here’s how the rotation could play out:

This means we could see the debuts of Schmidt or Deivi this Sunday. That’s exciting!

On the flipside, the near-term schedule is pretty indicative of how badly the Yankees need another starter, especially with James Paxton out. If Brian Cashman lands a starter (or two), the opportunity for Schmidt or García to become a part of the rotation could dry up after that August 30th need.

For now, the Yankees have to prepare themselves to utilize the prospects in the coming weeks. Aaron Boone and company can’t assume that an external reinforcement will be here come the trade deadline. The front office is assuredly working on bringing in some help, but Cashman isn’t one to overpay in trades. He likes to make deals on his terms rather than make moves in desperation.

JA Happ, Clarke Schmidt, and the Trade Deadline

When is enough, enough? Earlier this week, we learned that the Yankees would skip JA Happ in the rotation because of two off days this week. This was a sensible decision given the continuation of his bad 2019 into his first two starts of 2020. The veteran lefty, or at least his rotation spot, isn’t in need again until Monday. But instead, the Yankees announced that he’ll start Sunday against Boston. I know it’s just a difference of one day, but Jordan Montgomery could have gone on regular rest Sunday. Plus, a certain pitching prospect is in line for Monday.

Running Happ out against Boston’s lineup isn’t likely to get him back on track. Yes, the Red Sox have struggled this year. Still, even without Mookie Betts, there are some excellent hitters in that lineup who probably wouldn’t mind facing Happ. How could hitters not want to face him? He’s given up three homers and walked eight in just seven innings this season to follow up last year’s 4.91 ERA. Do the Yankees really need to keep trying this? We know what Happ is at this point. So, with the trade deadline a little more than two weeks away, it’s time to figure out what the organization has internally (i.e. Clarke Schmidt). Not only is Happ bad, but if Paxton can’t regain his velocity, the Yankees should nab another starter. Maybe that starter is already in waiting at the Alternate Site.

Schmidt was scheduled to throw five innings in Scranton yesterday, which would put him in line to make his next turn on Monday. That should be in the Bronx, but it looks like it won’t be. And it could have worked out just fine, too. Again, instead of Happ Sunday, Montgomery could have pitched on normal rest leaving Monday wide open. Alas.

Putting Schmidt in the rotation now would allow him to start three times before the deadline. As Bobby said earlier this week, might as well size him up before the deadline. Now, I don’t know if that’s enough time to evaluate his readiness to stick in the rotation, but it’s better than not seeing him face big league hitters until mid-September when it’ll be too late to make a trade.

There’s really no need to salvage Happ at this point. Stick him in the bullpen, let him eat some garbage time innings, and maybe try him in similar situations that Luis Avilán is currently getting. Give Schmidt his chance, and if it works out, great. If not, the trade market will still be available.

Revisiting how the Yankees will handle prospect starters this year

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It’s been four months since I wrote about this year presenting a big opportunity for a handful of the Yankees’ pitching prospects. Over a long 162 game season, I posited that guys like Deivi García, Clarke Schmidt, and Michael King would have ample time to showcase themselves for the 2021 rotation. Given the looming free agencies of Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and potentially JA Happ, alongside Luis Severino’s rehab, it made plenty of sense to audition the prospects this year. But now that we have a 60 game season at hand (if we have a season!), things will be different.

The tricky thing is that the Yankees’ 2021 situation hasn’t changed: Tanaka, Paxton, and Happ could all be gone. Severino won’t be around for at least the first few months of the season. Only Gerrit Cole, Jordan Montgomery, and Domingo Germán are under team control, leaving at least two rotation spots open. Simply handing both of those spots to inexperienced youngsters seems doubtful. Yes, the Yankees gave a spot to rookie Montgomery out of camp in 2017, but that was a rare exception.

The easy answer to the 2021 problem is to re-sign Tanaka and Paxton, thereby giving more time to incorporate the rookies into the rotation. I can’t say that I’m confident both impending free agents will be back, though. Maybe one will. In any case, the Yankees still need to find out how ready the young arms are. It’s just that the organization can’t trot out any of them with a ten game division lead in mid-August. That ship has sailed.

So, the Yankees will have to accept additional risk to get a true sense of how ready García, Schmidt, and King are. At first glance, none of them could be any worse than Happ was last year, right? That’s easy to say though. Things can always be worse! Nonetheless, trying any of the aforementioned three as openers or in piggyback roles might make some sense, especially paired with Happ. Remember, Happ’s 2021 vesting option lingers. I’m sure the Yankees want to prevent it from triggering.

Using the prospects as openers or as piggyback starters seems like the best balance of risk-reward. It avoids overexposure, at least in the early going, in a season where each inning is much more meaningful. It would limit each of them to two-to-three inning outings, thereby avoiding the multiple times through the order penalty. At the same time, it also allows real looks at how these young arms do against big league hitters. And if all goes well, the team can lengthen the appearances.

Pairing the prospects with Happ seems like a decent enough idea. Best laid plans, though. Not much has been under anyone’s control this year, so it’s hard to imagine everything going according to plan for the pitching staff. At times, the team might have no choice but to start Deivi or Schmidt or King. COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon and no one in the rotation is immune, prospects included. And aside from the pandemic, the Yankees might be without Tanaka at the start of the season too. Fortunately, he was diagnosed with a mild concussion after he was hit by a line drive, but we all know that concussion recovery isn’t necessarily predictable. Oh, and last but not least, pitchers break.

Ultimately, opportunities should still exist this season one way or another. Anything conventional, however, is probably out the door. Would it have been nice to enjoy, for instance, Schmidt’s debut in a meaningless August game? Certainly. Instead, the Yankees could need to rely on young arms like him in big spots this year. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. Yes, it’s a bit riskier, but these pitchers are going to have to pitch under pressure at some point. In a year where absolutely nothing is normal, these young arms will likely be used on an as-needed basis, traditional development be damned.

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