Analysis

No Minor Addition: Rangers SP a Cashman Target?

As far as things go in the Bronx, there are only three certainties: death, taxes, and reports linking the Yankees to virtually every available starting pitcher. No matter what time of year or the status of the current season, every trade deadline is seemingly centered around which pitcher General Manager Brian Cashman is attempting to reel into the concrete jungle. In 2017, it was Sonny Gray and Jaime Garcia. In 2018, J.A. Happ and Lance Lynn joined the fray.

Funny enough, however, these acquisitions were made despite the Yankees strength in pitching. In both 2017 and 2018, the team finished 2nd in overall pitching WAR. Even if you remove the Yankees’ superb bullpen from those calculations, the Yankees only fall to 4th and 5th in those years, respectively. While those additions did help, it’s clear that they were never necessities, but rather luxuries. As it stands in 2019, though, the Yankees currently have their most glaring starting pitching need since they became contenders once again in 2017, and while many are or have been clamoring for a Max Scherzer, Dallas Keuchel, or Madison Bumgarner, there appears to be a less expensive option that would give the Yankees both bang for their buck and a fundamentally blank canvas for them to improve upon. His name is Mike Minor.

Already Pretty Good

Now, although he hasn’t been brought up as much as the aforementioned former Cy Young winners and MVP vote-getters, it’s not like Minor is the most under-the-radar guy out there. After all, whenever a pitcher posts a 2.55 ERA through 13 starts on a team that few expect to advance to October, he makes almost instant headlines in New York as fans and sportswriters alike begin to connect the dots. Following Brian Cashman’s usual thought processes (or at least trying to), however, I figure that the ERA is a tertiary consideration at best. First of all, Minor’s FIP (Fielding-Independent Pitching) is sitting at a still-good-but-modest 3.41, suggesting that the southpaw has been relatively lucky. Yes, his 87% runner strand rate is a little too high, and no, I don’t think Minor is a 2.55 ERA pitcher or anything close to it, but overall the profile looks very promising, even without any changes being made.

In his career, Minor has started 151 games, but never has he posted the following in a single season (aside from his 2017 season, when he pitched exclusively out of the bullpen for the Royals):

StatisticValuePrevious Career-High (Year)
K%*26.1%22.1% (2013)
K-BB%* 18.3%17.3% (2010)
Fastball Spin Rate✝2650 RPM2605 (2017)
Chase Rate*33.1%32.9% (2018)
Groundball Rate*42.3%40.6% (2014)
Pop-Up Rate*14.1%13.1% (2018)

(*Courtesy of FanGraphs; ✝Courtesy of Baseball Savant)

In his age-31 season, Minor seems to have finally figured it all out. The fastball spin rate stands out here, but in actuality, it only represents one of Minor’s three standout pitches. The spin rate on Minor’s slider (2756 RPM) is comparable to similar pitches thrown by Ryan Pressly, Sonny Gray, Yu Darvish, and Marcus Stroman. His changeup rates as the third-best in baseball (as per FanGraphs) behind only Hyun-Jin Ryu and Lucas Giolito. His curve, which has a track record of solid results (an xwOBA allowed of .238 last year and a 60th-percentile spin rate), has been getting squared up this year (.389 xwOBA allowed), so Minor’s presumed new club could either work on it or shelf it all together.

All told, not only is the current Texas starter controlling the strike zone and coaxing plenty of whiffs with a revved-up fastball and a top-30 chase rate in baseball, but he’s producing the best batted-ball quality of his career, with lifetime bests in groundball rate and pop-up rate. It’s also worthwhile to note that Minor has placed 45% of his pitches on the edges of the strike zone, well above the Major League average of 39% (Baseball Savant). As a whole, the lefty’s xwOBA (expected weighted on-base average) sits at a sparkling .298. Even considering Minor’s left-on-base luck and only focusing on his FIP, the former 1st-round pick is on pace to shatter his personal best for fWAR in a season (3.3) before the All-Star Break, should his career year continue. Some are expecting regression, and while that may be on tap…

The Yankee Boost

…Brian Cashman and his elite analytics team would attempt to offset all of it before anyone knew better of it, should Cashman capture the heart and mind of Rangers GM Jon Daniels.

As noted earlier, Mike Minor currently possesses what looks to be the best fastball he’s ever had as a starter–and possibly the best he’s ever had, period. Given that detail in addition to Minor’s career-best strikeout rate, one would assume that Texas has convinced him to hop onto the tactical wave of high fastballs and low breakers that has swept the majors and baseball as a whole. Unsurprisingly, not only has this strategy benefitted Minor, but the high fastball has been one of his best weapons altogether. Minor throws about half of his 4-seam fastballs up in the zone, and so far this plan has yielded considerable value, producing an xwOBA of .224, which is better than the mark produced by high-spin Yankee pitchers Aroldis Chapman, Domingo German, Joe Harvey, Jonathan Holder, J.A. Happ, Chad Green, and Jonathan Loaisiga. At the same time, however, there’s still room to improve in this regard. Noted “rise-ballers” Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole throw their heaters up in the zone closer to 60% of the time, as do Holder and Happ, two pitchers with similar high-spin, average-velo heaters. Should Minor be traded to the Yankees (or any other analytically-advanced team), they’d likely look to squeeze just a bit more out of Minor’s heater. In fact, the Bombers may ask Minor to revamp his entire arsenal, granted that in New York he could be the beneficiary of a brand new role (which I will get into shortly).

Also worth noting is the stark difference between the two clubs’ defensive prowess as far as the infield goes. The Rangers have allowed a .355 average on ground balls versus an expected average allowed of .283. The Yankees, meanwhile, have allowed a .235 average versus an expected average of .245, and that’s with Gleyber Torres playing shortstop and Didi Gregorius out of the lineup. The Yankees’ outfield hasn’t fared as well, but that’s largely due to the fact that the team has missed or been missing Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton for months at a time. Once Judge and/or Stanton return, the team can finally do away with the ugly Clint Frazier outfield experiment, which has so far yielded -11 Outs “Above” Average in limited action (courtesy Baseball Savant).

Priuses in the Playoffs?

One complaint with the acquisition of Minor that I’ve noticed in a handful of Yankees discussions on social media is that he would be too redundant, considering the presence of southpaws James Paxton, J.A. Happ, and CC Sabathia in the Bronx, but there are a few reasons why that won’t be an issue.

First of all, Brian Cashman is known for his love of redundancy, something which he has repeatedly stated. To him, redundancy acts as an insurance policy to injury or any kind of loss of a certain kind of player. If he really disliked redundancy, do you think he would’ve taken on Giancarlo Stanton’s 320-million-dollar contract so that the slugger could serve as Aaron Judge’s twin? With both Paxton and Sabathia’s knee problems and Sabathia’s and Happ’s elevated ages, Cashman has likely assumed that there will be a handful more of IL stints in store for the lefties.

Secondly, Minor is already a better player than both Happ and Sabathia, and that’s before the club has made any suggestions to him.

Third of all, Minor seems to be a pitcher especially ready for the AL East. As a reminder, the Texas Rangers play in a division with four top ten offenses (not including their own), and many of these games take place in the hitter-friendly ballpark in Arlington, so neither Yankee Stadium nor the Bombers’ divisional opponents should frighten Minor any more than he’s already accustomed to. In fact, neither the Red Sox nor the Rays should keep Minor up all night, as both are hitting below-average versus lefties overall (with wRC+ marks of 93 and 92, respectively).

Finally, Minor’s skillset makes him viable for a role that neither Happ or Sabathia would excel especially in: the hybrid role. One of the most significant (and one of the few) problems with the Yankees bullpen is that since so many of the options have relatively low stamina and run high pitch counts due to their effective wildness, only a handful of the Yankees’ elite relievers can last longer than an inning. This is where the lefty Minor and righty Domingo German fill in as pitchers that can exploit their strong high-spin fastballs and nasty changeups and breaking balls as hybrid relievers that can air things out for multiple innings while stymying hitters, avoiding the third-time-around-the-lineup penalty, and bridging the gap to what is arguably the greatest bullpen of all time. This hybrid role would work so well that the Yankees may indeed partner with Toyota to auction off a Yankees-themed Prius should the team win their 28th championship (you knew the bad joke was coming eventually).

As for a likely package, one should expect something not too dissimilar from the pair of players who were exchanged for J.A. Happ near last year’s trade deadline. If you can’t recall, fourth-outfielder-type Billy McKinney and the backup caliber, non-prospect Brandon Drury were both moved up north to secure the veteran lefthander, and although Minor does have an extra year on his contract, an offer like right-handed pitcher Albert Abreu and infielder Thairo Estrada should definitely intrigue Texas at the very least.

In totality, Mike Minor appears to be a strong option for Brian Cashman should the prices of Max Scherzer and other available aces indeed prove too high. With a favorable skillset, room for improvement, and the profile to succeed in the AL East and in a hybrid role come October, the lefty is likely already the apple of the front office’s eye, and it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that the club has already scouted Minor multiple times. Additionally, Minor’s contract of two years and $19 million represents an insane bargain in a league where starting pitchers are becoming more ineffective, less pervasive, and much more expensive in today’s MLB. Now, I’m sure there are other teams aware of Minor’s potential utility in a pennant race, and as a result, Brian Cashman may indeed pivot off of Minor. After all, when’s the last time you’ve seen Cashman either a) massively overpay in a trade or b) act predictably, let alone at the same time?

We won’t know if Cashman is truly serious about Minor until the dust settles after the July 31 trade deadline, but if he does pull the trigger on the Texas lefty, you can be assured that it’s no Minor addition.

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Featured Photo: Texas Rangers starting pitcher Mike Minor via Joe Camporeale/USA Today Sports.

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