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What to watch for in this spring’s Yankees rotation battle

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The Yankees’ most intriguing storyline for this season is the rotation, which has two open spots and at least five interesting candidates.

MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at New York Yankees Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is back. Finally. Unfortunately, it has returned in the form of meaningless, glorified exhibition games, with starting pitchers throwing two innings, position players going five, and low-minor league prospects handling what should be high-leverage frames. Still…baseball is back! And to fully enjoy the grand return of baseball, we often subconsciously attach value to these spring training games. As much as we all love baseball, it’s not always easy to watch the game just for the sake of watching the game—there needs to be some sort of tangible ‘thing’ to be tracking.

So, if you’re looking for a key feature of each game to keep an eye on, it should probably be pertaining to the most important part of this March for the Yankees. No, I’m not talking about injuries, but instead about the spring rotation battle. Keeping an eye on the front runners, underdogs, and dark-horses in this four-plus battle royale means paying attention to more than just the performances—there’s plenty more than factors into the final staff decision than run prevention, walks, and strikeouts. Here are some of those player-specific details to keep an eye on.

Luis Severino – Changeup development

You’ve heard plenty about Luis Severino already, but it’s worth reemphasizing exactly why he failed last season and how the former top prospect can turn around after a disastrous performance. Finding out what went wrong starts with an incredible split: Sevy had an 8.50 ERA as a starter and a 0.39 ERA as a reliever. While the main driver for this disparity is batters only seeing Severino once through the order, the other key is Severino’s curbing of the changeup while a reliever.

Severino likely failed last season because his third pitch, the changeup, was largely ineffective and didn’t play well off the fastball. He was delegated to the minors to try and hone that third pitch, but was unable to make significant adjustments mid-season. While in the bullpen, the changeup was ditched and Severino was dominant, so, simply through deductive reasoning, it looks like Sevy’s weakness was the change. He has put in serious work on that offspeed pitch this offseason, and it could ultimately be the difference between him being a mid-rotation starter and a bullpen piece.

Luis Cessa – Pitch selection

Interestingly, Cessa’s problem may have the easiest fix of this whole batch. He struggled mightily with the fastball and curveball, but a deep repertoire means he could minimize these weaknesses by, well, throwing both pitches less. The fastball, of course, will always be his primary pitch, but Cessa went to it more than half the time last year and was seriously burned, giving up 12 of his ridiculous 16 home runs (in 70.1 innings) on the pitch. Cessa only went to the curveball 15% of the time, but that .625 slugging percentage he gave off the means it’s probably time to throw it less.

Luckily, Cessa can compensate lower rates of the fastball and curveball with a pitch he may not have been throwing enough. The former Tigers prospect has always lacked a real swing and miss weapon, but he may have one in a potentially whiff-driving, groundball-inducing slider that he hasn’t been using enough. Cessa’s slider was thrown 23% of the time last year, and considering how effective the breaking pitch was, it might be time to up its usage.

Chad Green – Health and home runs

The biggest question mark for Green out of the gate will be his health, as he missed the final month of the season with a sprained right elbow ligament. Elbow injuries are terrifying, and although the Yankees think Green has made a full recovery…elbow injuries are terrifying. Green’s velocity figures did stay relatively stable throughout the season, which is somewhat encouraging, but nothing else about Green matters if he’s not healthy.

In other news, Green was hit hard last season despite intriguing strikeout-stuff because of his home runs. In fact, his HR/9 was higher than any qualified starter at a ridiculous 2.36 HR/9 mark. It’ll be worth watching if Green tries to stave off the dingers by changing his location patterns or trying something different with his fastball, which was absolutely pounded last year.

Bryan Mitchell – Control and changeup development

I’m not the most optimistic about Mitchell’s chances of being a starter, and the biggest reason for that is his shallow arsenal. Mitchell, like Severino, has trouble consistently throwing a changeup, and last year barely used it at all. As a result, Mitchell turned into a three-pitch pitcher, with a four-seamer, cutter, and curveball. Since two of those pitches were fastballs, he simply didn’t provide enough different looks to be effective as a starter.

In addition, Mitchell’s consistently run a walk rate above four, both in the major leagues and the minors. While he can be effectively wild, throwing enough pitches around the strike zone that he doesn’t leave an exorbitant number of pitches over the heart of the plate, giving up so many free passes simply won’t work for a starter. If he can learn to pound the strike zone more, while avoiding the middle of the zone, there’s hope here of more than a middle reliever.