With CC Sabathia out until July and Ivan Nova recovering from Tommy John surgery, the Yankees have two of their projected five starting pitchers out for the foreseeable future. Michael Pineda could be back in two weeks, but despite a hot month of April, questions still linger about the state of his shoulder, velocity, control, and now his teres major.
The rotation is left in the hands of a dominating Masahiro Tanaka and scuffling Hiroki Kuroda. David Phelps and Vidal Nuno have each had their good and bad starts, and it looks like Phelps might be able to contribute something above average. Chase Whitley is the final piece to the puzzle, and as the season goes on, he could prove to be the most important.
Susan covered Whitley’s interesting amateur and minor league history last week, and the biggest takeaway from Whitley’s minor league numbers is that they’re very good. He owns a low 2.64 ERA, an 8.6 K/9, and a low 2.9 BB/9, both of which have improved in 2014. The problem is, the majority of these numbers have come out of the bullpen. Whitley had just 14 minor league starts before facing the Mets last Thursday, and this inexperience certainly showed once he hit 70 pitches.
Whitley only had six minor league starts this season, but he put up a very impressive 2.39 ERA, 2.4 BB/9, and 10.9 K/9. In his major league debut last week, he showed good command of the strike zone, swing and miss stuff, a good stable velocity, and induced weak contact. The Mets aren’t the most formidable offense in baseball, but they whiffed at four four-seams, two sinkers, five sliders, and ten changeups. Whitley also earned the exact batted ball types he was looking for with his fastballs, as six of the seven sinkers put in play were ground balls, and five of his six four-seamers put in play were fly balls.
Whitley’s whiffs were very impressive, and now the question is whether it was his sheer stuff or the Mets’ offense to blame. In terms of movement, his four-seam fastball showed a typical nine inches of vertical “rise”, but he also owned around five inches of horizontal movement into right-handed hitters. This high horizontal movement is typical of all his pitches. His sinker has about six inches of vertical “rise”, with a tremendous eight inches of movement into right-handed hitters. The changeup shows the same horizontal movement as the sinker, mimicking it in every way but velocity and “rise”. He averaged a very low 2.46 vertical inches with the changeup, a very impressive drop off. Whitley also owns a slider, which looked impressive against the Mets, but didn’t show as much movement as you’d expect from the results. Perhaps the pitch plays up due to the tremendous amount of opposite movement he gets from his other three pitches, but I’d bet that stronger offenses won’t have as much trouble with the breaking ball.
When it comes to analyzing pitchers in terms of movement, I find it more significant to compare movement within their repertoire rather than to other pitcher’s pitches. For instance, Masahiro Tanaka’s splitter may not have the most movement in the game, but when combined with heavy movement on his sinker and four-seamer, his splitter plays up extremely well to confused batters. For Whitley, he’s shown an impressive variation of movement between his four-seamer, sinker, and changeup. These numbers actually resemble Felix Hernandez‘ extremely well, though Whitley lacks about a mph of velocity and the plus slider. Still, the movement on his four-seam, sinker, and changeup almost mirror Hernandez’ perfectly, and Hernandez’ has now relied on these three pitches the most. This isn’t to say that Whitley can even touch Seattle’s ace in terms of efficiency, as he lacks the breaking ball, velocity, and experience, but it does show just how talented Whitley is.
Over his next few starts, Whitley needs to continue to stretch out, as he looked completely lost after 70 pitches against the Mets. It took him 4.2 innings to finally come head-to-head with command problems, but more experience in the rotation should help him build stamina. Whitley draws the Cubs in his next start, which will hopefully help build his confidence, though any major league lineup is better than the offenses he saw in Triple-A. The final overall improvement I’d like to see from Whitley is to add some more dropoff on his slider. When facing right-handers, his other three pitches can be used to bury right-handers in, but without a plus pitch to throw on the outside corner, right-handed hitters may start cheating on the inside fastballs and changeups.
Overall, I was very impressed with Whitley, and I’d assume the Yankees were as well, considering he was promoted to the rotation over more experienced players like Alfredo Aceves. There’s a lot more upside there than I expected, and once Pineda returns, I wouldn’t be surprised if he sticks in the rotation over Phelps or Nuno.