Cole Hamels pitched well for the also-ran Rangers against the Yankees in late May 2018, initiating an expectant wave that the outing was akin to an audition and soon Hamels would be in pinstripes.
Shortly afterward I wrote a column indicating J.A. Happ, then of the Blue Jays, was likely more attractive to the Yankees than the more accomplished Hamels and over the next few weeks continued to make a case why I thought Happ was the Yankees’ priority.
This was not based on what their officials said, but merely knowing what the Yankees like — high strikeout rates or groundball rates, and preferably both. Perhaps that will change in 2019 as pitchers work more toward the top of the zone to try to defeat launch angle swings and limit homers. But even if that curtails fervor for grounders, it won’t for strikeouts.
This is offered because the name most associated with the Yankees and this July 31 is San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner and I would never say never on him. But if the Yanks go in that direction it will be because 1) nothing clearly more appealing came into the marketplace, 2) his postseason pedigree of excellence was swaying and 3) the organization has 20-20 hindsight regret about not landing Justin Verlander in 2017 (he went to the Astros) or Hamels last year (Cubs). Both were 34 and neither was pitching near their best at the time of the trades. But they were shipped out of losing situations to winning ones with stronger analytic resources and both have been better than any starter the Yanks have obtained in that period.
So if Bumgarner, 30 on Aug. 1, becomes the Yankees’ priority, it probably won’t be based off numbers nearly as much as belief in the player.
For at the time of their acquisitions in either July 2017 or ‘18, Sonny Gray, Jaime Garcia and Lance Lynn were top 10 in groundball rate (minimum 90 innings). Happ’s groundball rates with Toronto in 2017-18 were the best of his career and his 2018 strikeout percentage was his best and 19th in the majors.
Patrick Corbin was the Yankees’ top free agent starting target last offseason after finishing seventh best in strikeout percentage and ninth in groundball percentage. Paxton was fifth in strikeout percentage among those with at least 150 innings before the Yankees obtained him.
Through 15 starts this season Bumgarner was 42nd among 80 qualified starters in strikeout percentage and 71st in groundball percentage. If you add those rates it is 59.9%. At the time of acquisition by the Yankees, Paxton was 71.9%, Happ 72, Lynn 72.1, Garcia 73.3 and Gray 80.2.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has mentioned, among what is publicly available, liking xFIP, which attempts to remove defense and estimate run prevention based on items such as strikeouts, walks and flyballs. All five of the Yankees’ recent starter acquisitions had a lower xFIP than their actual ERA. Bumgarner’s is higher.
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Bumgarner has his best strikeout rate since 2016 and is throwing harder on average than any time since 2015, but has the worst groundball rate and hard-hit rates of this career. His limited no-trade clause covers the Yankees, and Bumgarner might have that for leverage, but maybe it is because he has no interest in a big northern city.
It all does not disqualify Bumgarner. Especially since the Yankees might have to tinker with their formula. Because based on past preferences applied to a veteran starter on a non-contender the most obvious available candidate would be fifth in groundball percentage, 16th in strikeout rate, has those two numbers combine for 82.6% and has a lower xFIP than ERA — that would be Sonny Gray of the Reds.
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But if they stick to what has been their recent process here are some thoughts on some starters who could be available:
1. Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays. He has by far the best groundball rate in the AL, lots of history in the AL East and is controlled through next year. But he is a not very big righty (built like Gray) with a pedestrian strikeout rate.
2. Trevor Bauer, Indians. Cleveland is in wild-card contention, but opposing executives think if the franchise could position itself for the near future it would deal Bauer, who is getting expensive and can be a free agent after next season. The Indians could use an outfielder like Clint Frazier, who they drafted with the fifth overall pick in 2013. Bauer has found controversy in the past and might be the kind of acquired taste who would give a team pause before obtaining, but he has a top strikeout rate and good groundball marks. Before hanging up with the Indians, I would inquire about just how big the price would be for Shane Bieber, who isn’t even arbitration eligible yet.
3. Matt Boyd, Tigers. There is some Paxton in there — elite strikeout rates and meh groundball percentages. The lefty was good last year and really blossomed this season and is under team control through 2022, so it would take a haul to get Boyd. But Detroit is open for business. If you are unconcerned about his lack of big games and think the strike-throwing genius of this season is real then he is worth that haul.
4. Zack Wheeler, Mets. Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard have much lower xFIPs than actual ERAs, so dream what it would mean to get them to better defense and less toxicity. But like Washington with Max Scherzer and even Miami with the under-the-radar Pablo Lopez, they are doubtful gets for the Yankees. Scherzer and Lopez because they won’t be available (though many will ask) and Wheeler and Syndergaard won’t be available to the Yankees if the Mets decide to sell.
Wheeler would be the most likely to go because he is in his walk year. The Braves were the team trying hardest to land him last July, but will the addition of Dallas Keuchel dim a 2019 pursuit?
It is Syndergaard that fascinates and should scare the Mets. There has been injury issues and not as much progress as hoped. But liberated from the Mets would he emerge as consistently brilliant? The Yanks and Mets talked about him in the offseason as part of a three-way deal with Miami that would have sent J.T. Realmuto to Queens. But Brodie Van Wagenen was new and mistake-free back then and so perhaps the Wilpons would have given permission to make a huge deal with the Yankees. Now?
Not so much.