Yankees Trade for a Bit of Turbo Boost

The Yankees are in a precarious position; at 41-39, they’re 8.5 games back of first in the AL East and 5.5 games out of the second Wild Card spot. Sometime soon, they’ll have to decide whether they plan on adding major league talent for a playoff push this year or retooling for the future. Today, they made a trade that doesn’t really do either, but is still a ton of fun. As first reported by Lindsey Adler of The Athletic, the Yankees acquired Tim Locastro from the Diamondbacks in exchange for minor league pitcher Keegan Curtis.

Locastro is a deeply strange player. He’s one of the few true oddities left in a game that’s increasingly moving towards multi-position mashers and fluid-role strikeout pitchers. His two standout skills are getting hit by pitches and stealing bases successfully, which is about as weird of a combination as it sounds. But they work together quite well — or at least, they did until this year, when everything has gone south in a hurry.

Getting hit by pitches doesn’t feel like a skill. If you needed any confirmation, just look at the way we describe it — it’s something done to you, rather than some great feat. You draw a walk, or hit a double — but you get hit by a pitch. Year in and year out, though, Locastro gets hit at a ludicrous rate. In the minors, 6.2% of his plate appearances resulted in a HBP. In the majors, he’s been hit in 7.5% of his plate appearances — the highest rate in league history.

That’s mostly hilarious — how can this guy be so good at something that seems so out of his control? — but it’s also real value. Across the majors, batters get hit in roughly 1.1% of plate appearances. That’s an additional 6.4% of the time that Locastro gets on base for free! His career 6.3% walk rate plays more like a 12.7% walk rate, which is downright elite.

The Yankees could use a center fielder who can get on base. With Aaron Hicks on the 60-day Injured List, they’ve given the majority of their starts to Brett Gardner, and his .318 OBP would be the lowest mark of his career. The daily rigors of playing center also aren’t optimal for a 37-year-old — he’s held up well defensively so far, but he can’t play every day, and using Aaron Judge to soak up some of the defensive innings isn’t a great solution either.

Locastro grades out as a roughly average defensive center fielder, depending on which metric you want to look at, but he absolutely looks the part: he makes up for middling route efficiency with absolutely blinding straight-line speed. He’s been the fastest player in the league since the day he reached the majors, and hasn’t slowed down; he’s averaging 4.07 seconds from home to first this year, with an average sprint speed of 30.7 feet per second, a ridiculous mark.

That stupid speed feeds that other thing Locastro excels at — stealing bases. He started his major league career by stealing 29 bases without being caught, an all-time record. That streak is no longer active, but it doesn’t change the fact that he can flat-out fly. In games where he doesn’t start, he’ll be one of the best pinch runners in the league. The Yankees might hit a lot of home runs, but they hit their fair share of singles too, and scoring extra runs on the basepaths never goes out of style.

Listening to me describe Locastro, you might wonder why a) he’s not starting everyday and b) why the Yankees got him for a minor league reliever (more on him later). Yeah, about that: he’s hitting .178/.271/.220 so far this year, good for a 44 wRC+, and he’s actually provided negative value in both the field and on the basepaths (per our measures of those components of the game). In something of a lost season for the Diamondbacks, Locastro has lost his way; his walk rate has dropped by 50%, his strikeout rate has increased, and he has only three extra base hits in 133 plate appearances. It’s been a rough one.

Some of that is just who Locastro is. He relies on pitchers leaving the strike zone, whether to hit him or to let him on base via a walk. Think of it this way: 33% of the bases he’s gained via hitting — one for a walk, two for a double, and so on — have come via walks or HBPs. That’s seventh in baseball since his debut, and everyone ahead of him on the list hits home runs at double his clip or more. Pitchers have no reason to fear him, and every reason to flood the zone.

But of course, since he does so little damage when he connects, he’s still incentivized to wait the pitcher out — he has the third-lowest swing rate on pitches over the heart of the plate (excluding two-strike counts) in the league at 46.4%, ahead of only David Fletcher and Daniel Vogelbach (an interesting duo, that). That results in deep counts, and puts pressure on him to foul pitches off or put them in play to get more chances at those sweet, sweet out-of-zone pitches.

That’s a tough way to earn a living at the plate, and Locastro hasn’t been up to it this year. His contact rate has ticked down, his zone rate has ticked up, and pitchers have picked on him with sliders. They’re throwing 48.6% of their sliders against him in the strike zone, and he’s either taken or swung through roughly half of those. He also has a career-high chase rate on sliders outside the zone, and a grim 46.7% whiff rate when he does chase.

Pitchers are no dummies — he’s seen roughly double the rate of sliders that he had previously in his career, and it feels like this is an adjustment he’ll need to make before he sees a more normal pitch mix. It’s possible that he’s just been caught in the funk that has pervaded the entire Arizona roster, but the huge increase in sliders and his poor performance against them certainly feel ominous.

That sucks, because Locastro is good in an incredibly fun way. He’s super weird, in the most complimentary sense. He’s a reverse Bronx Bomber; a Bronx Dink-and-Dunker, maybe, or depending on where he rents an apartment, a Riverdale Runner. It’s hilarious to me to picture Locastro next to Aaron Judge, both marvelous athletes but otherwise totally different. It’s even funnier that Judge might be the better defender. How can you not want Locastro to stick in New York?

Alas, he probably won’t, which is why the return wasn’t higher. Keegan Curtis is a 25-year-old reliever who was a 22nd-round draft pick in 2018. Scout-the-statline types will notice that he’s striking the whole world out in Double-A this year — a titanic 39.4% strikeout rate over 16 innings of work. That’s good stuff, though it does come with a 10.1% walk rate.

Per Eric Longenhagen, Curtis has added velocity since his pre-pandemic form; he currently sits around 94 mph, up from 91-92 in 2019, with a long arm action that explains the walks somewhat. He misses a ton of bats with that fastball — as you might guess from a Yankees reliever, it’s a near-vertical four-seam job — and complements it with an average slider. The slider’s depth seems like it might be a nice pairing with a riding fastball — though Eric notes that he doesn’t boast a ton of spin for someone who will likely live or die with the heater. He projects as a potential fastball-heavy low-leverage reliever, one of those arms that every team needs in the back of their bullpen.

The most likely outcome of this trade is boring and kind of sad; Locastro will be a below-average bench piece for a while until the Yankees find a new outfield alignment, and Curtis won’t throw enough strikes to make it in the big leagues. I’d rather imagine the fun and somewhat unlikely outcomes, though, so that’s what I’ll do here.

Why can’t Locastro recapture his 2019-20 form, when he was an average hitter thanks to his propensity to get hit and comical footspeed? Why can’t he weasel his way into Yankee fans’ hearts as Judge’s little brother (Locastro is 6-foot-1, but everyone’s little compared to Judge)? He doesn’t have to hit that much to have value; playing every outfield spot and providing speed on-demand is a strong base.

And while I’m at it, Curtis could totally be a reliever who puts up a 2.80 ERA with 80 strikeouts in 60 innings. Fastball-dominant relievers don’t always work out, but they’re a ton of fun to watch when they do. Both players could be with their new teams a long time — Locastro is entering his first year of arbitration next year.

The Yankees and Diamondbacks will both likely make bigger trades than this one in the coming weeks. But they might not make trades that include a more fun player, and I hope Locastro and Curtis both shove for their new teams. I love pop-up relievers, and everyone should love Locastro — if he’s digging into the box, shin-guards and elbows ready to absorb punishment, in a late-September game with playoff implications, I’ll be eagerly watching.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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2 years ago

Adding to the Tim Locastro is a fun-kind-of-weird narrative: while quarantined and bored in Covid protocol this spring, Locastro did 800 push-ups in one day. Let’s see Aaron Judge do that!

2 years ago
Reply to  Mark

Aaron Judge doesn’t do push-ups, he pushes the earth down.

2 years ago
Reply to  Mark

Ah, the Arozarena strategy. Doesn’t look like it travels.