Digging deeper into the Justin Smoak collapse and the bullpen as a whole

By: Matt Bove

Welcome to managing in New York Aaron Boone. It’s a right of passage for every first-year manager to have a first move with the game on the line that blows up in your face. It’s going to happen to everybody. The best hope is that he learns from it and moves on.

With runners on second and third and two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning, David Robertson had Josh Donaldson up at the plate and Justin Smoak on deck trying to protect a 4-3 lead. Boone and Robertson both felt that pitching to Smoak would be the better matchup and intentionally walked Donaldson. This brought up Smoak with the bases loaded and after a great nine-pitch battle, he deposited a grand slam over the center field wall that sent the Yankees back to New York with a 2-2 split after winning the first two games of the year.

“It’s just not on a whim. That’s the matchup,’’ Boone said to the New York Post of his decision that came within a skinny foul tip of working until the ball vanished over the fence.

“It can be but less than some may think,’’ Boone said when asked if a batters’ swings can lead a manager away from the numbers and matchup. “I don’t get caught up in an at-bat or two. [Robertson’s] breaking ball is a good matchup with Smoak.’’

“I threw him some really good pitches. I thought I could get a fastball by him,’’ said Robertson, who started the troublesome inning by giving up a leadoff single to Russell Martin and then a one-out double to Aledmys Diaz. Robertson retired Devon Travis on a comebacker to the mound for the second out in front of the intentional walk to Donaldson, who was 2-for-12 with six strikeouts in the series.

“I was one pitch away and didn’t get it done. He found a way to get a piece of it,’’ Robertson said. “I gave him the best ones I had. I threw everything at him. He just won today. I didn’t get it done. I blew it.’’

David Cone, who was my number one choice to be the Yankees’ manager this winter, first-guessed this decision in the broadcast booth and turned out to be prophetic. Loading the bases puts that much more added stress onto the pitcher was his main reason. I agreed at the time.

Smoak’s plate disciple really improved last year as he ended the year with a .355 on-base percentage and only swung at 25.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. The MLB average is 30 percent. He was probably not going to get himself out in that situation. It just makes the pitches a lot tougher.

Let’s review what was said in the quotes. Boone is right that a few at-bats over the course of the game should not be a huge deciding factor. The big picture and the large sample size should always win out. Just because Smoak hit two homers before over the last two days, does not mean he was “hot” and would  be more likely to do so again. This is a new at-bat and a new matchup against Robertson.

This is also why Donaldson’s success against Robertson and the failures Smoak had in short sample sizes were not a key factor. Batter vs. pitcher stats are mostly meaningless.

However, the key factor Boone missed is that Donaldson is playing injured and is not the same hitter because of that. Yes, the big picture says Donaldson is the much more dangerous hitter, but the shoulder injury changes that.

Boone also liked the matchup of Robertson’s curveball vs. Smoak. The numbers absolutely bear out that he was right to feel this way. In his career against curves, Smoak only has eight homers in 1,887 curves seen and a .138 batting average.

Also, Smoak is a much better hitter batting lefty as opposed to righty. He has as a career .325 wOBA and a 105 wRC+ as a lefty as opposed to a .309 wOBA right-handed and a 95 wRC+ The loss of power is significant as well (.197 ISO lefty, .156 ISO righty). Thus, if you’re insistent on facing Smoak then bringing in Aroldis Chapman and turning him around could have been the better option.

As for letting Robertson decide what he wanted to do in that situation, that was a mistake. Players have to play and managers have to manage. There is no way being out there in the competition that Robertson can be focused on making a logical decision right in that moment, nor does he have all the information at his disposal.

You also have to tip your hat to Smoak on a great at-bat. He fouled off three tough curves, including the fifth pitch of the at-bat which painted the outside corner and was a terrific one.

Robertson felt he had thrown all his best curves and had to come with a fastball, and Smoak was ready. So to sum up, Boone should have pitched to Donaldson because of his injury and to avoid a bases loaded situation, but was right that small sample sizes should not be relied upon and that Robertson’s curve was a good matchup. However, it’s not all on him as the bullpen failed to bring up a 4-1 lead and was dreadful in the first four games.

What was lost in the Smoak drama was that Robertson threw a terrible hanging curve to light-hitting shortstop Aledmys Diaz that resulted in a double. That is where he actually messed up the most.

Besides Chad Green, the rest of the bullpen has pitched to a 9.90 ERA thus far. That’s a far cry from the best bullpen ever hype. Tommy Kahnle let up the first home run to Smoak in the seventh inning that got the Blue Jays back in the game.

Kahnle was very good for the Yankees last year (2.70 ERA, 1.49 FIP and a 1.13 WHIP), but not as dominant as he was with the White Sox (2.50 ERA, 2.30 FIP and a .972 WHIP) This was mainly caused by a loss of control where Khanle walked only 1.8 batters per nine innings with Chicago as compared to walking 3.4 batters per nine innings with New York.

This can be attributed to the Yankees abandoning the plan the White Sox had for him to get back on track. Kahnle was throwing fastballs 73 percent of the time, changeups 20 percent of the time and sliders seven percent of the time in Chicago. The Yankees were notorious for having their pitchers throw a huge amount of breaking balls last year, and implemented that upon Kahnle.

Kahnle only threw the fastball 59 percent of the time for the Yankees — a huge drop of 14 percent — while dropping the changeup at a 19 percent clip and incorporating the slider at 13 percent.

As a whole, the Yankees had a ton of success with their pitching staff last year with their breaking balls model, but one size does not necessarily fit all. When you’re throwing more breaking pitches there could be more or a chance of walking people if you aren’t sharp. That’s common sense.They should have Kahnle going back to more of his mix in Chicago and see what happens.

As for Dellin Betances, his problems go way beyond pitching at this point. In fact, his pitching is the least of his worries. It’s impossible to pitch when every single turns into a double, which is the crisis he currently faces. Combined that with the fact that he has the yips throwing to bases and it’s a huge red flag. It’s tough for him to focus on this and repeating his mechanics.

I was wondering when teams would start bunting on him to force him to throw to first. Turns out, stealing home was even a better option. Betances has only walked two of the 13 hitters he’s faced this year, which is a good sign and below his career average of 4.11 BB/9.

His curve has not looked quite as sharp as usual to the naked eye, although both of the homers have been on fastballs. Betances only allowed three home runs all season last year, so this has to be considered an anomaly.

Brooks Baseball does not have vertical and horizontal movement on pitches out yet for this year, but I will be interested to see if he’s getting the same bite and movement as he has in the past on that curve. He could be sacrificing some movement to try to get it over the plate more often.

In any event, the Yankees need to get their bullpen straighten out in a hurry as they head back home and Boone needs to learn form his mistake.

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