Hope Springs Eternal in the Arizona Fall League

The Yankees 2016 season started off with a lamentable thud in more ways than one. Greg Bird's season ended before it really began, as the team announced that a torn labrum would keep him out for the entirety of 2016 on February 1st. Bryan Mitchell injured his toe about six weeks later, and would not return until August. James Kaprielian was placed on the disabled list with an elbow injury in April, and would not pitch for the remainder of the season. In short order their first baseman of the present and future, their sixth starter, and their top pitching prospect went down with serious injuries. And what seems like a dozen minor leaguers and shuttle relievers suffered some sort of season-ending injury during Spring Training.

The teams left in the playoffs have had less injury woes than the Yankees, so their odds on making it through to the playoffs didn’t come as a complete shock. Some of the best sites were predicting that the Yankees wouldn’t make the playoffs earlier in the season, but it’s still somewhat tough to take.

So it goes.

Six months later, though, things are looking up. The Yankees have top prospects throughout the minor leagues, and are slated to shed upwards of $40 MM as compared to Opening Day 2016 (I'm factoring in potential arbitration raises, and my back of the napkin math could be off). And, most importantly, Bird and Kaprielian are back.

The Arizona Fall League began just last week, yet it is difficult to curtail the excitement therein. Bird is batting .308/.357/.615, with 4 2B in 13 at-bats. Trade deadline acquisition (and top-50ish prospect) Gleyber Torres is batting .250/.308/.583, with 1 2B and 1 HR in 12 at-bats. And the oft-overlooked Miguel Andujar my well be the best of all, batting .400/.455/.600, with 1 3B in 10 at-bats. The sample sizes are small, to be sure - but there are some glowing reports out there already.

Most important, however, is the fact that Kaprielian is back. He made his AzFL debut on Wednesday, October 12, and he was nothing short of brilliant. Kaprielian struck out 6 in 3.0 IP, throwing 40 pitches and allowing just one hit. And, as per BA's Josh Norris, his stuff is right where it left off this Spring - "his fastball sat comfortably between 94-96 mph and he worked in all three of his offspeed pitches: a slider and changeup in the high-80s, and a curveball in the low-80s."

These stats will change quite a bit (all are current as of noon on Monday), but these four players provide some insight as to what the next great Yankees team could look like - a slugging first baseman, a two-way shortstop, a solid third baseman, and a top of the rotation starter is a hell of a foundation to build upon.


Calling All Questions

Happy Monday, ladies and gentlemen!

At some point this week, some combination of Scott, E.J., and I will be recording Episode 57 of the It's About the Yankees (Stupid) Podcast. We'll have a discussion about the merits of the different incarnations of Wins Above Replacement, and continue our overview of the team's organization depth. However, we would also like to field some questions from you - the readers and listeners.

If you would like to become internet famous and have your question read and answered, feel free to:

  1. Post it just below this, in the comments.
  2. Send it to me on Twitter, @DomenicLanza.
  3. E-mail it to us at stupidyankeespodcast@gmail.com.

We look forward to hearing from you.

It Could Be Worse: A Season Post-Mortem 1980s Flashback

1. The stunning-for-NY boredom of consistent mediocrity. I think of the 2010s Yankees as a high-drama team: repeated wild card runs; Jeter’s and Rivera’s final years; A-Rod’s everything; and the occasional brilliance-before-flameout of so many young starters (Nova, Hughes, Pineda, Eovaldi, Severino). But their 2013-16 results – win totals of 85, 84, 87, and 84 – have been just so stagnant. And those teams weren’t even that good: their average annual run differential has been just +9, so they’ve really been, on average, only an 82-win team. That’s not only boring; it’s also stunningly disappointing for a team that spent the prior 17 years so consistently on top.

2. My 80s/early-90s PTSD. I vaguely remember the Yankees’ great 1978 and 1981 teams, but it wasn’t until the mid-80s that I was old enough to follow baseball more seriously than with “yay!”/“boo!” That was a sad time to start following the Yankees. Between their 1981 World Series and the 1994 team that was great but lacked a post-season due to a strike, the 1982-1993 Yankees averaged 82.8 wins, earning no post-season play. Steinbrenner built those teams by acquiring already-high-performers in their late-20s to mid-30s; a few were long-term successes (Winfield, Henderson, Boggs), but more had just 1-2 good years left (Jesse Barfield, Danny Tartabull, Don Baylor, Scott Sanderson, Rick Rhoden…), or – all too often ­­– had zero left in the tank (Cecil Fielder, Omar Moreno, Mike Witt, Steve Trout, Andy Hawkins, Dave LaPoint…). With so many newly acquired stars so quickly declining, the Yankees kept needing to scrounge up more aging stars, and then those guys would decline too. The team finally stopped keeping up with that treadmill, suffering sub-.500 records from 1989 to 1992. So when I see a 2013-16 team averaging 85 wins with a true quality of probably 82 wins, a mild PTSD flares up, and I hope we’re not in for years of 80something-win mediocrity followed by dropping below .500.

3. Little hope for 2017, but more long-run hope. I’m trying to remind and convince myself to get over my '80s PTSD and be more optimistic about the team the Yankees transformed into in late 2016. They beefed up the farm system by dumping several of their stars; they released (A-Rod) or substantially benched (McCann) aging stars to make room for ripe prospects; and Cashman’s post-season post-mortem declared an unwillingness to fill the team’s (many) holes by trading prospects. The 80s vintage move would be multi-year deals for “home run champ Mark Trumbo” (age 31) and “proven vet C.J. Wilson” (age 35) -- or, worse, a trade of several top prospects for some starter just a tick better than Wilson. I feel odd cheering for the 2017 to be left weak and hole-riddled. But thanks to Cashman’s unwillingness to sell off future stars and future budget for a few more wins in 2017, I’m heartened that we’re not in for a repeat of the 80s. The 2017 team won’t be a winner, but it could be tons of fun to watch -- because it’ll be the team that sorts out which youngsters really have the chops to be a part of the next winning Yankee team in 2018 or 2019.

The IIATMS Awards

AL Most Valuable Player - Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

It's almost cliché at this point to anoint Trout as the MVP, considering (1) he's the obvious choice, and (2) he isn't going to win the actual award. The 25-year-old led all of baseball in bWAR and fWAR, runs scored, walks, runs created, OBP, wRC+, and OPS+. He was in the top-five in the AL in WARP, batting average, SLG, OPS, and stolen bases, to boot. He is, as Michael Schur (a/k/a Ken Tremendous) put it, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, or Ken Griffey, Jr. - and many of us don't appreciate that enough.

As an aside, the best argument that I can think of for "valuable" in Most Valuable Player meaning "best" is this: imagine there are two rolls of money in front of you. The outer bill is $100, and it is stuffed with $1 bills. The other has an outward facing $50 bill, and it is wrapped around a bunch of $20s, $10s, and $5s. Mike Trout is the $100 bill, and therefore has the most value of any single bill. Mookie Betts is the $50 bill, and his roll is the Boston Red Sox. You'd rather have the second roll, but that doesn't depreciate the value of the $100 bill.

AL Cy Young - Justin Verlander, Detroit Tigers.

Two years ago, Justin Verlander fell off a cliff. He posted the worst strikeout rate and ERA+ of his career, producing just 1.1 bWAR in 206 IP. Verlander opened 2015 on the disabled list (the first DL stint of his career), and picked up where he left off upon his return. He had a 5.05 ERA heading into his 10th start, and it seemed as though he was pulling a CC Sabathia. And then, just as quickly as he had fallen apart, he pulled himself back together, posting a 2.12 ERA the rest of the way, with 73 K in 76.1 IP. 

And in 2016, Verlander proved that he was back, leading the AL in both bWAR and fWAR, and placing second in WARP. He also led the league in strikeouts and WHIP, while placing in the top-5 in IP, H/9, K/9, and ERA+. 

AL Rookie of the Year - Gary Sanchez, New York Yankees

We promise that this isn't a product of bias.

Sanchez led all AL rookies in fWAR, and was one of the best players in baseball after the All-Star break. His 176 wRC+ was fourth in the Majors following in that time, and only five players hit more home runs (despite Sanchez giving up two or so weeks of plate appearances to most players in this sample). His 3.2 fWAR in the second half was 9th in the Majors, and 65th overall for the season as a whole.

I know that this isn't a second-half award, and Michael Fulmer did have a hell of a season for the Tigers. However, Sanchez's brilliance outweighs Fulmer's full-season of goodness.

NL Most Valuable Player - Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs

Bryant cut his strikeout rate by 8.6 percentage points this year, and his overall numbers improved across the board, leading to a 149 wRC+ (good for 4th in the league). He led the NL in bWAR and fWAR, and led the Majors in WARP, due in no small part to his ability to play strong defense at  third base and in the corner outfield. He also placed in the top-five in the league in runs scored, home runs, OPS+, and runs created.

It is worth noting that Bryant truly towered over the competition by WAR(P) metrics, and it will be interesting to see how he progresses going forward. He produced a great deal of value on defense, as the metrics loved his play at multiple positions, and there have long been rumblings that WAR(P) may overstate the value in that. He is my choice regardless.

NL Cy Young - Jose Fernandez, Miami Marlins

The death of Jose Fernandez hit us all rather hard, but this is not a simple vote of sentimentality. Fernandez led the NL in WARP, K/9, K%, and DRA, and finished second in fWAR, FIP, and K-BB%. Only Clayton Kershaw was more dominant on a per-inning basis - and Fernandez had a 33.1 IP edge on the Dodgers ace. At the very least, he was having a Cy Young caliber season that was cut tragically short.

NL Rookie of the Year - Corey Seager, Los Angeles Dodgers

Seager was one of the ten-best position players in all of baseball (5th in fWAR, 7th in bWAR and WARP), and it is almost a disservice to compare him to other rookies. His 7.5 fWAR more than doubled the next best NL rookie (Jon Gray of the Rockies, at 3.7), and even the torrid pace of Trea Turner (3.2 fWAR in 73 games) doesn't extrapolate out to match Seager's production. 

The 22-year-old shortstop played strong defense, and was among the best hitters in all of baseball. This choice may actually be easier than the AL MVP selection - and that's saying quite a bit.

Comeback Player of the Year - CC Sabathia, New York Yankees

We went with one overarching award, as there aren't many worthwhile candidates - this essentially boils down to Verlander and Sabathia. The key difference here is that Verlander was back in form for the last two months of 2015, and only really struggled for one season. Sabathia, on the other hand, was a hot mess for three straight seasons, producing a grand total of 0.7 bWAR from 2013 through 2015. He was an above-average starter this year, and appears to be an integral piece of the Yankees rotation in 2016.

Biggest Surprises:

  1. Gary Sanchez. 
  2. CC Sabathia rebounding to such a significant degree.
  3. Clayton Kershaw somehow getting even better.
  4. Daniel Murphy proving that his epic 2015 postseason wasn't entirely a fluke.

Biggest Disappointments:

  1. Alex Rodriguez falling off so abruptly, and failing to reach 700 home runs.
  2. The death of Jose Fernandez. 
  3. Mark Teixeira's swan song (particularly as compared to David Ortiz's).
  4. Clayton Kershaw's injury-shortened season.

Yankees co-MVPs - Gary Sanchez and Masahiro Tanaka

What more can I say about Sanchez? He was the team's best position player this year in 50-something games. And I'll give Tanaka his due in the next award:

Yankees Cy Young - Masahiro Tanaka

I wrote about Tanaka's understated brilliance at the end of August, and it still holds true. The 27-year-old was the backbone of the Yankees pitching staff this season, and he was one of the five best starting pitchers in the American League. He finished 3rd in bWAR, 3rd in ERA, 3rd in BB/9, 4th in ERA+, 6th in fWAR, and 10th in IP. The Yankees were 23-8 in his starts, and 61-70 when anyone else started. 

And, just because I found it interesting, he finished the season with a lower ERA than the embattled Dellin Betances. Only the departed Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman tossed more than 30 IP for the Yankees with a lower ERA than Tanaka.

Yankees LVP - Mark Teixeira

This is piling on, considering Teixeira took this "honor" at the mid-point of the season, as well. 203 players had 400-plus PA this season. Among those, Teixeira ranked 192nd in wRC+ and 200th in fWAR ... so this was unavoidable. 

I'm choosing to remember his 2016 season for this moment, though.