With all of the attention the Yankees’ farm system has received in recent years, Jeff Degano has remained in relative obscurity. He didn’t receive much attention before the Yankees selected him in the second round of the 2015 draft, either. As a left-handed pitcher with a scary injury history at Indiana State, Degano was never a flashy pick.
Few can fault a team that decides to take a chance on a 6-foot-4 southpaw, however. Especially one who can sling a mid-90’s fastball with a low-80’s slurve. After finding moderate success in 2015, Degano “went full [Rick] Ankiel” in 2016, possibly developing a case of the yips.
Last week, Ankiel published his book, The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life. He devotes a large portion of the autobiography to a discussion of the yips, a type of performance anxiety that affects a player’s ability to make seemingly routine throws. Historically, several players have developed the yips, but few have done so as publicly as Ankiel. During Game 1 of the 2000 NLDS, the then-21-year-old lost his ability to find the strike zone.
In this excerpt from Ankiel’s book, one can see how truly destructive the yips became to Ankiel. He could throw bullpens with accuracy, but as soon as he would get into a game, he would start sending balls to the backstop. He even tried to will it away by continuously throwing baseballs at a cinder block wall. His pitching career lasted fewer than 35 MLB innings after his 2000 NLDS implosion. He ultimately transitioned into a position player and had a nice career as an outfielder.
After signing an under-slot bonus in 2015, Degano split time between the Gulf Coast Yankees and the Short Season Low-A Staten Island Yankees. He gave up 24 hits over 21.1 innings, and his 3.8 BB/9 rate was a tad high, too His K/9 and HR/9 rates, however, were a healthy 9.3 and 0.4, respectively. Overall, it was a moderately successful debut.
There were certainly things to work on, but there were promising signs too. Fangraphs ranked Degano in their 2016 Preseason Top Prospects lists. When the season started, however, he had not been assigned to Low-A Charleston as many had guessed he would. Instead he opened the year in Extended Spring Training.
Degano was assigned to Rookie League Pulaski in June, which was effectively a demotion after having pitched in the more-competitive New York-Penn League with the summer before. Questions about Degano’s health existed, but there is no evidence to suggest that he was physically hurt. Could the yips be to blame?
There doesn’t appear to be any video of Degano’s 2016 season, and considering his stat line, that’s probably a good thing. He managed only 5.2 innings of work because he couldn’t keep the ball in the zone. He walked 25 of the 47 batters he faced and threw 10 wild pitches. To put things into perspective, Degano’s 2016 stat line was statistically worse than Ankiel’s yips-influenced pitching.
Without video or any insider information, we can only really speculate about Degano’s struggles. He hasn’t been assigned to any Minor League Affiliate, nor has hit the disabled list this season. He’s likely staying back in Extended Spring Training. Obviously, this doesn’t bode well for Degano, but the Yankees shouldn’t give up on him yet.
Degano plays in a different era than Ankiel. The Yankees are more invested in developing young talent than they were 17 years ago. Plus, the emergence of sport psychology means that Degano likely has a larger, more knowledgeable support system behind him. I will be following his progress this season closely. Hopefully he can finally begin his ascension through the Yankees’ farm system.