Getting Gary More Carry

At the end of the 2017 season, things were looking very bright for the New York Yankees at the catcher position. A twenty-four year old Gary Sánchez had just followed up his insane 2016 breakout with a 4.3 fWAR and 131 wRC+ in 122 games. His fWAR ranked him fifth among all catchers with at least 300 plate appearances in 2017, and his wRC+ led all catchers in the same group.

Sánchez, now twenty-six going on his age twenty-seven season in 2020, hasn’t really lived up to the lofty expectations 2017 set for him. In 2018, injuries limited Sánchez to only 89 games and 374 plate appearances. His .304 wOBA, 91 wRC+, and 1.7 fWAR all represent career lows. The Yankees backstop bounced back this past season, though injuries cost him playing time again: in 106 games and 446 plate appearances, Sánchez posted a .346 wOBA, 116 wRC+, and 2.3 fWAR.

Complaining about a 116 wRC+ from your catcher is the definition of a baseball first world problem. Catchers hit .236/.308/.405 for a .303 wOBA and 85 wRC+ in 2019, and Sánchez’s wRC+ ranked fifth among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances last season. Still, it’s hard not to feel like Sánchez is falling short of his massive offensive potential.

Part of what’s ailing Sánchez is his deteriorating ability to put the ball in play. The righty slugger’s strikeout rate has increased dramatically since 2017, from 22.9% to 25.1% in 2018 and 28.0% in 2019. According to numbers at FanGraphs, pitchers have progressively thrown more and more pitches to Sánchez outside the strike zone. Problematically, he’s offering less frequently at pitches in the zone and more often at pitches outside the zone in that timeframe.

In the heat maps from 2017, 2018, and 2019 below, you can see that pitchers are giving Sánchez less to hit with their breaking balls in two strike counts.

Sánchez has to improve his plate discipline to regain his 2017 form, and that lack of discipline is likely the real culprit here. But there’s more going on as well.

If you pay attention to Yankees baseball, you know that Sánchez has impressive quality of contact ability. In terms of average exit velocity, Sánchez ranked 17th among 466 hitters with at least 50 batted balls in 2017 (90.8 mph), 76th of 480 hitters in 2018 (90.3 mph), and 60th of 478 hitters in 2019 (91.8 mph). His exit velocity on balls in the air is even more remarkable: 23rd in 2017 (96.0 mph), eighth in 2018 (97.7 mph), and 47th in 2019 (95.9 mph). His maximum exit velocity is where he’s really stood out: 18th in 2017 (115.7 mph), second in 2018 (121.1 mph), and fourth in 2019 (118.3 mph).

Despite his elite exit velocity, since 2017, Gary’s wOBA has underperformed his xwOBA, which calculates a hitter’s expected wOBA based on exit velocity and launch angle.

Some of this could be bad luck. Sánchez had a .304 BABIP in 2017, which was really close to the league average .300 BABIP that season. But his .197 and .244 BABIPs in 2018 and 2019 were a lot lower than the .296 and .298 respective league averages. Even with a league average BABIP in 2017, however, Sánchez underperformed his xwOBA that season. That coupled with the fact that this has been a consistent issue for Sánchez seems to indicate that his underperformance might be more than just misfortune.

Grounds balls definitely appear to be part of the problem for Sánchez. His wOBA has underperformed his xwOBA on all grounds balls, pulled ground balls, and pulled ground balls against shifted defenses in every season since 2017, as shown in the table below.

SeasonGB wOBA – xwOBAPulled GB wOBA – xwOBAPulled GB w/ Shift wOBA – xwOBA
2017-0.009-0.005-0.146
2018-0.099-0.131-0.122
2019-0.041-0.030-0.013

This is likely due to where Sanchez hits these ground balls, and it makes a lot of sense when you look at his ground ball spray charts from 2017 through 2019.

2017
2018
2019

In 2017, Sánchez bombarded the left side of the infield with grounders, likely contributing to that higher 2017 BABIP. In 2018 and 2019, however, Sánchez has hit a ton of his ground balls to spots where shortstops and third basemen are able to easily convert those grounders into outs. That placement is likely a byproduct of his swing and approach. This feature of Sánchez’s batted ball profile will likely cause him to continue to underperform his xwOBA on grounders, as even his hardest-hit ground balls will be gobbled up by the elite fielding of Major Leaguers when hit right at them.

One note: despite a drastic increase in shifts against Gary since the start of 2017 (27.5% in 2017, 42.8% in 2018, and 65.9% in 2019), the underperformance of his wOBA on pulled ground balls against shifts has actually decreased each year. Additionally, his underperformance on pulled grounders against shifted infields was lower than his underperformance on pulled grounders against unshifted defenses in 2018 and 2019, which indicates that the shift hasn’t had much of a negative effect on Sánchez, probably due to the ground ball spray mentioned above.

While you always want as much offensive production as you can get from all your hitters, let’s be honest: no one’s main concern is what happens when Gary Sánchez hits the ball on the ground. With his elite max exit velocities and average exit velocities on fly balls and line drives, we want to know what’s happening when the Yankees’ monster of the sea puts the ball in the air.

SeasonFB wOBAFB xwOBAFB wOBA – xwOBA
20170.7510.800-0.049
20180.6630.716-0.053
20190.6360.719-0.083

As you can see in the table above, Sánchez has gotten less production than he should have on fly balls as well. Before you blame Yankee Stadium’s harsh dimensions for right-handed hitters, Sánchez’s wOBA has actually outperformed his xwOBA on pulled fly balls in every season from 2017 through 2019. His wOBA on balls to center, however, has dramatically underperformed his xwOBA.

SeasonFB wOBA to CFFB xwOBA to CFFB wOBA – xwOBA to CF
20170.6230.829-0.206
20180.4090.814-0.405
20190.4120.664-0.252

In September, FiveThirtyEight’s Travis Sawchik published an article about the declining backspin of batted balls since 2017 and how it might have contributed to the 2019 home run surge. While backspin often creates more lift and can result in more carry on batted balls, Dr. Alan Nathan, a physics professor at the University of Illinois and a consultant for Major League Baseball, pointed out that more spin also leads to more air drag on the ball during its flight, which slows the ball down. Consequently, as spin rates of batted balls exceed the ideal levels for achieving greater distance, the distance balls travel actually decreases. Put simply: too much backspin can be a bad thing.

It’s possible that Sánchez is suffering from this effect. xwOBA is a statistic that is based on two inputs: exit velocity and launch angle. If Sánchez is getting too much backspin on his fly balls, they are likely not traveling as far as the average fly balls hit with those same exit velocities and launch angles. If a batted ball doesn’t travel as far, it might mean that it doesn’t clear the fence or lands in a fielder’s glove instead of on the outfield grass or off the wall, resulting in less offensive production.

Let’s see if we can find examples of Sánchez-struck fly balls that came up short in 2019. To do that, I looked for balls that Sanchez hit hard (above 95 mph) that Statcast designated as fly balls.

Two caveats before going to the tape: some of these clips are from March and April games early in the season. Research by Dr. Nathan has shown that temperature can affect how far batted balls travel: an increase in 10 degrees in temperature can lead to a 2.5 foot increase in distance. While that should be kept in mind when considering the following examples, the average distances of batted balls listed below are taken from balls hit throughout the season, which should mitigate some of the potential distortion due to temperature differences. Secondly, I didn’t account for the effect wind might have had on these fly balls.

On March 28th against Andrew Cashner, it looks like Sánchez absolutely crushes this ball to left at 107.6 mph off the bat and a 33.1 degree launch angle, but it lands in Dwight Smith, Jr.’s glove on the warning track. According to Statcast, the actual distance on this fly ball was 380 feet on a day when the high temperature in the Bronx was 51 degrees. In 2019, the average distance of balls hit between 107 and 108 mph and 33 and 34 degrees was 412 feet. That gap of thirty-two feet is enormous and, as you can see, only a few more feet would have netted the Kraken a home run. While Sánchez’s issue seems to be on balls hit toward the middle of the field, this serves as evidence that some of his pulled fly balls might also be affected by excess backspin.

Sánchez punishes this middle-middle hanging slider from Jimmy Yacabonis on March 30th at 102.6 mph and 28.4 degrees only to have it corralled by Drew Jackson, again on the warning track. Statcast measured Gary’s fly out at 390 feet, but the average ball hit between 102 and 103 mph and 28 and 29 degrees in 2019 traveled 408 feet. The high temperature in the Bronx that day was 65 degrees.

More Orioles: on April 4th, Sánchez takes Alex Cobb deep 411 feet to center at 109.3 mph and 20.2 degrees on a day where the high was 66 degrees in Baltimore. Though there were only five of them in 2019, on average, balls hit to center between 109 and 110 mph and 20 and 21 degrees traveled 426 feet. Because this ball left the yard, this isn’t an example of a ball where Gary missed out on production, but it goes to show that his distance is being affected even on balls that wind up going for homers.

Against Thomas Pannone on June 6th, Gary takes a fastball to the warning track 395 feet away from home plate in center at 103.9 mph and 31.7 degrees. The average fly ball hit between 103 and 104 mph and 31 and 32 degrees went 403 feet in 2019, which certainly would clear the fence at the Rogers Centre.

On June 11th, Jason Vargas induces a 99.4 mph and 30.7 degree Sánchez fly ball that lands in Carlos Gómez’s glove without a threat 370 feet away. The average distance of balls hit between 99 and 100 mph and 30 and 31 degrees in 2019 was 385 feet.

Sánchez takes a Ryne Stanek fastball to center on June 18th at 103.6 mph and 21.5 degrees only for it to be tracked down by Kevin Kiermaier in the rain 384 feet from home. Average balls hit to center between 103 and 104 mph and 21 and 22 degrees traveled 401 feet last season.

There are even more examples than the ones highlighted above of Sánchez fly balls not traveling as far as the average batted balls hit at similar exit velocities and launch angles. Some of these balls might still wind up as outs with some extra distance, but others might leave the yard or bang up against the wall for extra bases. What seems obvious is that Sánchez definitely appears to be losing distance on these fly balls, and you can see how it might be affecting his overall production. Obviously, the difference between a home run or a double and an out is a huge swing.

If you really watch these videos, you can kind of see that, while Sánchez is hitting these balls hard, there’s something about the way his bat comes through the zone that’s preventing him from really squaring them up. The ball does seem to be almost spinning off the bat. With his defense an ever-present issue, it might not be the best idea to pile even more on Sánchez’s plate. But, if Sánchez works to improve his bat path, he might be able to eliminate some backspin and get more carry on his fly balls, harnessing more of his impressive raw power.

Again, the biggest issue here is probably Sánchez’s plate discipline. Excess backspin on fly balls is likely only a small part of why Gary is leaving some offensive firepower on the table. But it’s a piece of a puzzle that could help the Yankees fully unleash the Kraken in 2020.

ALCS Game 4 Notes

ALCS Game 1 saw its fair share of exit velocity. Nineteen of forty-nine total batted balls were hit at exit velocities of 95 miles per hour or higher, which MLB’s Baseball Savant designates as “hard hit.” Since 2015, hard hit balls have resulted in the following outcomes on average: .540 batting average; 1.085 slugging percentage; .671 wOBA.

Starters Masahiro Tanaka and Zack Greinke served up thirteen of those hard hit balls in their combined total of thirty-one batted balls allowed: seven of eighteen batted balls for Greinke and six of thirteen for Tanaka. One big difference: Tanaka was able to keep the Houston offense mostly grounded.

Tanaka was also able to stay closer to the edges of the zone than Greinke.

And it shows in where they each got hit hard.

The Yankees made Greinke pay when he came into the middle of the zone but particularly on his four-seam fastball. Here’s what the Yankees did against those fastballs in Game 1.

BatterExit VelocityResult
Aaron Judge102.8 mphFly out to Springer in the 1st
Giancarlo Stanton107.1 mphGround ball single in the 2nd
Giancarlo Stanton104.5 mphFly out to Springer in the 4th
Gio Urshela105.7 mphLine drive single in the 5th
Gleyber Torres94.5 mphHome run to left in the 6th
Giancarlo Stanton110.7 mphHome run to right center in the 6th

Greinke’s command will have to be better against the Yankees in the Bronx in Game 4.

On 83 total pitches in Game 1, Greinke threw 47% four-seamers, 30% sliders, 13.3% curveballs, 8.4% changeups, and one eephus. Against righties, Greinke essentially became a four-seamer/slider pitcher, throwing those two offerings about 87% of the time. Look for the Yankees righties to be sitting on either one of those pitches in Game 4.

In ALDS Game 2 against the Twins, Tanaka’s splitter looked like it was back to its pre-2019 form.

Date RangeUsagexwOBASwStr%Vertical BreakSpin Rate
201926.7%.30911.2%-27.67 inches1588 rpm
10/5/201934.9%.14724.1%-30.72 inches1557 rpm
10/12/201932.4%.4510.0%-30.98 inches1615 rpm

The results in Game 1 of the ALCS were something of a mixed bag. If the 2019 playoff baseballs are truly different, there’s even more evidence that the typical movement on Tanaka’s splitter is back, as he got even more drop on the splitter in ALCS Game 1. That extra movement didn’t seem to help too much as the pitch didn’t result in even one swinging strike from the Astros on twenty-two total pitches. The average exit velocity on the five batted balls against the pitch was 90.6 mph, but luckily for Tanaka, that high average exit velocity was accompanied by an average -11.1 degree launch angle, allowing the Yankees righty to limit the Astros to the following batted ball results against the pitch.

BatterExit VelocityLaunch AngleResult
Michael Brantley102.0 mph-3.9 degreesGround out to second in the 1st
Yuli Gurriel88.0 mph2.0 degreesGround out to short in the 2nd
Carlos Correa90.5 mph-0.9 degreesGround out to third in the 3rd
Kyle Tucker106.6 mph10.8 degreesLine drive single to right in the 3rd
Carlos Correa65.8 mph-63.5 degreesGround out to pitcher in the 6th

Wednesday night’s rainout has resulted in four games in row if the series goes seven, throwing a large wrench into the Yankees’ plans to lean heavily on their bullpen. Without a built in day of rest for his pitchers, manager Aaron Boone will need length from his starters now more than ever. Swings and misses are the best result you can get as a pitcher, but with the Yankees needing him to eat innings, Tanaka may be able to rely on the splitter to get quick ground ball outs in Game 4.

The slider was extremely effective for Tanaka against the Astros in Game 1, yielding a .006 xwOBA on an average exit velocity of 76.5 mph and 43.9 degree average launch angle (80.0 mph pop ups from Jose Altuve and Tucker both with 69.0 degree launch angles and a 69.6 mph double play ball against Robinson Chirinos at -6.4 degrees). The slider resulted in eight swings and misses (a whopping 29.6% swinging strike rate) and five called strikes in just twenty-seven pitches. His success with the slider was likely due to his excellent location of the pitch.

According to numbers at Baseball Prospectus, Tanaka’s slider tunnels well with his four-seam fastball to both lefties and righties. You can see that the pitch had great shape in Game 1 and had the Astros off balance expecting fastballs.

This is something Tanaka will be looking to repeat in Game 4. He may also be able to take advantage of the slider’s effectiveness in Game 1 and steal some called strikes on four-seamers if Houston is trying to lay off those sliders diving out of the strike zone.

The Yankees have to expect Greinke to work more on the edges in Game 4 and take a selective approach, forcing the Astros right-hander to challenge the power of the Yankees lineup in their home park with his below average fastball velocity.

Tanaka’s solid performance in Game 1 gives him a slight advantage as he might be able to exploit an Astros lineup that could be more keyed in on his slider the second time around.

ALCS Game 2 Notes

The New York Yankees will face thirty-six year old right-hander Justin Verlander in Game 2 of the 2019 American League Championship Series on Sunday night. Verlander posted a 3.17 FIP, 2.95 SIERA, and 2.51 DRA in 223.0 innings pitched in 2019. Among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched, Verlander ranked third in strikeout rate (35.4%), third in chase rate (37.2%), sixth in contact rate (68.8%), and fourth in swinging strike rate (16.1%).

Verlander does it with a four-seam fastball (49.2%), slider (28.2%), curveball (18.5%), and changeup (4.1%).

Pitch TypeAvg. Velo.Vert. Break vs. Avg.Hor. Break vs. Avg.
Four-Seam94.6 mph2.9 inches3.2 inches
Slider87.5 mph-2.3 inches0.3 inches
Curveball79.4 mph2.0 inches1.5 inches
Changeup86.9 mph-1.9 inches3.5 inches

The elite rise and arm-side run on Verlander’s four-seam fastball get tons of balls in the air: between 25.3% line drives, 55.6% fly balls, and 25.5% infield fly balls, only 19.2% of Verlander’s four-seamers wind up on the ground. With the 2019 ball, Verlander gave up his fair share of home runs when throwing the four-seamer (21.8% home run per fly ball rate), but the suspected change in the baseballs may have eliminate that weakness from Verlander’s 2019 game in the playoffs. The movement on JV’s four-seamer has also resulted in a 14.3% swinging strike rate in 2019.

Verlander’s slider has absolutely devastated hitters this season. The pitcher gets hitters to chase out of the zone 53.4% of the time and has a 24.0% swinging strike rate. Verlander’s .178 xwOBA against on the slider ranks second among the 106 pitchers to throw sliders against at least 100 hitters in 2019.

The curve has also been ultra-effective for Verlander this season, with a .247 xwOBA against. He’s able to drop the pitch in for a strike as he’s done so 46.3% of the time in 2019.

Verlander’s fastball is so overpowering that it remains effective despite his predictable usage of the pitch. He starts lefties off with four-seamers 65% of the time. Righties see first pitch fastballs from JV 61% of the time. When hitters are ahead in the count, Verlander leans even more heavily on the fastball at 67% (vs. lefties) and 66% (vs. righties) clips. He locates those fastballs up in the zone, playing on the extreme “rising” action of the pitch.

The Yankees will probably be looking to jump on fastballs early in the count or when ahead, hoping to get balls in the air to the short porches in left and right field at Minute Maid Park, but it’s likely going to be much more easily said than done against Verlander.

When he gets ahead, Verlander moves to his slider and curveball almost evenly to lefties (28% and 26% of the time) but still forces hitters to protect against fastballs, throwing them at a 39% rate. With two strikes against lefties, he throws 40% four-seamers and 34% sliders, which tunnel very well with his four-seam fastballs to hitters digging in from the left side. Verlander does a great job of burying those sliders down and in to lefties.

Verlander goes to his slider even more frequently when ahead on righties (47%) and with two strikes (49%). Once again, his location is lethal.

There doesn’t appear to be much hope against JV’s slider. Verlander’s curve, however, might present more of an opportunity to jump on a hanger when the former Cy Young and MVP has the advantage in the count.

Verlander catches a lot more of the zone with the hammer. The name of the game for Yankees hitters behind and with two strikes may be to hope to be able to spit on the slider and either hunt fastballs or hope for a curve that gets too much of the plate.

The Yankees hit four-seam fastballs well (sixth-highest team xwOBA against in 2019 at .374), presenting yet another classic power versus power matchup between Verlander and the Bombers.

James Paxton goes for the Yankees in Game 2. The Astros strong right-handed hitters (George Springer, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa) could be a challenge for the lefty Paxton. Even with Yuli Gurriel possessing reverse splits over the course of his career (1886 plate appearances), the Astros were the best offense in baseball against lefties in 2019 with a 131 wRC+. Paxton’s splits against righties and lefties, both in 2019 and his career, are below.

Batter HandednessFIPK%BB%HR/9
vs. L (2019)2.2329.9%5.8%0.49
vs. L (Career)2.7426.1%7.7%0.56
vs. R (2019)4.3929.2%9.6%1.66
vs. R (Career)3.4026.5%7.3%1.03

As you might have imagined, Paxton has historically had more success against lefties. The splits are a little more exaggerated this season due to his high walk rate against righties and huge difference in home runs allowed per nine.

From August 7th on, Paxton changed his pitch mix. He cut back on his four-seamer and cutter and started throwing his knuckle curve twice as often.

Paxton’s overall numbers improved.

Pre-August 7thMetricPost-August 7th
4.31FIP3.09
29.5%K%29.2%
9.1%BB%7.9%
1.69HR/90.82
17.5%HR/FB%8.3%
14.9%/45.9%/39.2%Soft/Med/Hard Contact21.5%/43.7%/34.8%
.305xwOBA.271

He didn’t start striking more hitters out, but he did induce weaker contact more frequently.

The change in pitch mix also might have improved his splits against righties: his .274 xwOBA against righties since August 7th is an improvement on his pre-August 7th .311 xwOBA in 2019 and his .288 career mark (includes all games from 2015 to August 6, 2019). Paxton’s recent success against righties makes sense when you consider his increase in knuckle curve usage: his knuckle curve tunnels extremely well with his four-seam fastball from the right-handed batter’s point of view. The Pitching Ninja GIF below gives some idea of what righties have to deal with.

The Astros crush four-seam fastballs (8th in xwOBA at .370) and traditional curveballs (4th at .303) as a lineup, but they haven’t fared as well against knuckle curves (16th at .258). The sample sizes for all of this are not huge, but despite being a lefty and relying on a four-seam fastball/curveball mix, Paxton may not be at as much of a disadvantage against the Astros as the average pitcher.

One final note: In addition to the knuckle curve, Paxton has that cutter, which also tunnels well with his four-seamer to both righties and lefties. As a lineup, the Astros haven’t handled cutters well: they rank twenty-third in xwOBA against cutters (.303) and twelfth in run value per 100 cutters thrown (-0.09). Paxton working the cutter in a little more often than usual could be something to watch for on Sunday night.

ALCS Game 1 Note: Yankees manager Aaron Boone lifted Masahiro Tanaka after the righty had given up no runs, one hit, and one walk on sixty-eight pitches facing the minimum number of batters through six innings. With the top of the Astros lineup coming back up for the third time to start the bottom of the seventh, here’s why Boone went to Ottavino. First, Tanaka’s 2019 numbers by number of times through the order.

Times Through The OrderFIPK%xwOBA
First Time Through2.9824.5%.277
Second Time Through4.7718.2%.334
Third Time Through5.6915.3%.339

And for his career (xwOBA is from 2015 on).

Times Through The OrderFIPK%xwOBA
First Time Through3.2625.2%.287
Second Time Through4.0623.1%.316
Third Time Through4.4520.3%.327

On July 20th against the Colorado Rockies, Tanaka cruised through five innings, facing only seventeen batters and surrendering two singles. As the Rockies turned their lineup over for the third time, with one out in the sixth, Tanaka gave up a single to Charlie Blackmon, a double to Trevor Story, a walk to David Dahl, a homer to Nolan Arenado, a double to Daniel Murphy, and a single to Ian Desmond. Tanaka had been dominant after retiring the nine-hitter Tony Wolters to start the sixth. One batter later, he started to implode with absolutely no warning.

Tanaka certainly appeared to be cruising again on Saturday night, but it’s a reality that the more times hitters see a single pitcher in a game, the less effective that pitcher becomes. Against a lineup like the Astros, when it feels like the Yankees absolutely needed Game 1, turning the game over to a superior bullpen to nail it down was the right call. Boone needed to manage last night almost like a Game 7 and that means pulling your starter before he gets into trouble the third time through the lineup. According to the ZiPS projection system at FanGraphs, by winning Game 1, the Yankees flipped their chances of winning the series from 45.8% on Friday to 63.1% today.

ALCS Game 1 Notes

The New York Yankees and Houston Astros are set to kick off the ALCS tonight in Houston. Here are some notes about two teams that have been on a collision course all season.

Houston had the best lineup in baseball this year, leading the league in wOBA (.355) and wRC+ (125). Even the mighty Yankees trailed Houston, ranking third (.346) and second (117) in those categories.

No team walked more than the Astros this season, who took free passes at a 10.1% clip. In addition to their superior plate discipline, the Astros displayed elite bat-to-ball skills: no team struck out less than the Astros, who did so at an 18.2% rate. The Yankees ranked twelfth in both, at 9.1% and 23.0% rates, respectively.

Houston’s domination of the strike zone doesn’t when their hitters are digging in: the Astros pitching staff struck out a league-best 27.9% of hitters in 2019. Their 7.5% walk rate ranked fourth-lowest. The Yankees? Seventh at 25.0% and tenth at 8.3%.

Masahiro Tanaka goes for the Yankees in Game 1. Tanaka used his famous splitter 26.7% of the time in 2019 despite having trouble with the pitch earlier in the season, potentially due to the 2019 baseballs. There’s evidence that the baseballs have changed this postseason and have more drag than they’ve had since 2016. That could be good news for Tanaka’s splitter. Here are some results against the pitch from Tanaka’s Game 2 ALDS start against the Minnesota Twins compared to Tanaka’s season averages.

Date RangeUsagexwOBASwStr%Vertical BreakSpin Rate
201926.7%.30911.2%-27.67 inches1588 rpm
10/5/201934.9%.14724.1%-30.72 inches1557 rpm

That 24.1% swinging strike rate is much closer to the 23.7% and 21.7% marks that Tanaka put up with the splitter in 2017 and 2018. According to Brooks Baseball, in 2019, Tanaka only got more vertical break on his split-finger in his final regular season start against the Texas Rangers than he did in ALDS Game 2 against the Twins. In that start against Texas, however, all of Tanaka’s pitches registered season-high vertical break numbers and his vertical release points on all pitches also registered season-lows, which might indicate an issue with the tracking system in Texas. If the baseballs actually have changed, and the numbers from October 5th certainly look encouraging, the Yankees Game 1 starter might have the most powerful version of his most dangerous weapon back in his arsenal.

Even better news for the Yankees: according to Pitch Info data available at FanGraphs, the Astros struggled as a lineup against splitters this season. They rank eleventh-worst in MLB with a -1.45 run value per 100 splitters seen. According to Baseball Savant, the Astros rank thirteenth-best at hitting the splitter with a .254 xwOBA in 2019, the worst of any playoff team and lower than Minnesota’s third-best .296 mark. The Astros juggernaut just might have one weakness the Yankees right-hander is uniquely positioned to exploit.

The Astros were the best team in baseball at handling sliders in 2019 (0.85 run value per 100 sliders seen and .312 xwOBA), so Tanaka will need to be cautious with his most frequently thrown offering (36.3% usage rate in 2019).

The Astros Game 1 starter Zack Greinke uses a four-seam fastball (40.9%), changeup (21.9%), slider (16.1%), curveball (14.6%), and sinker (5.3%) in addition to the occasional eephus, splitter, and cutter (1.2% combined). Interestingly, Greinke’s changeup only averages 2.5 less miles per hour than his four-seamer (87.5 mph to 89.9 mph).

As a team, the Yankees crush four-seamers and changeups.

Pitch TypeRun Value/100MLB RankxwOBAMLB Rank
4-Seam0.643rd.3746th
Changeup0.811st.3173rd

Against the power-laden Bomber lineup, if Greinke isn’t sharp, he could find himself in trouble with his two primary offerings. Greinke is likely to go to the slider more, especially against a righty-heavy Yankees lineup, but he won’t find much more safety there: the Yankees ranked fifth in run value/100 against sliders at -0.05 and second in xwOBA with a .296 mark.

ALCS Roster Note: The Yankees dropped Tyler Wade in favor of Aaron Hicks, a major upgrade if Hicks is fully healthy. While Hicks’ inclusion complicates some decisions about lineup construction, he certainly upgrades the Yankees outfield defense by manning center and allowing Brett Gardner to take over in left for Giancarlo Stanton, whose knee was clearly not 100% for the ALDS. In Game 1, with a starter who keeps the ball on the ground going for the Yankees and a starter who doesn’t strike a ton of hitters out on the hill for the Astros, the Yankees may opt for better infield defense and less contact in exchange for more power in the lineup, playing DJ LeMahieu at first, Gio Urshela at third, and Stanton in left with Edwin Encarnación at DH and Gardner starting the game on the bench.

The Yankees also left first baseman Luke Voit off the ALCS roster and included lefty CC Sabathia. The Astros don’t feature a single left-handed pitcher on their ALCS roster. That being the case, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Voit was going to play in this series. An extra lefty out of the bullpen against Michael Brantley, Yordan Alvarez, Josh Reddick, and Kyle Tucker is probably going to be more crucial. Sabathia’s splits in 2019 are below.

Batter HandednessFIPxFIPK%xwOBAExit Velocity
vs. L5.794.1025.5%.27984.5 mph
vs. R5.634.9322.1%.31686.9 mph

Sabathia was bit by the home run bug against lefties in 2019, resulting in a high FIP, but his xFIP against lefties shows that he may have suffered from some bad luck in that department. Sabathia’s xwOBA against lefties ranks him 100th of 479 pitchers with at least fifty plate appearances against lefties in 2019. His exit velocity allowed ranks even better at 21st among 371 pitchers.

When you leave a bat like Voit’s off a playoff roster, you can only marvel at the Yankees’ organizational depth. It’s a hard choice, but Cameron Maybin’s usefulness as a pinch runner who can also take real at bats and play the outfield and Sabathia’s ability to neutralize some tough lefties in the Astros lineup edged out the right-handed slugger.

ALDS Game 1 Notes

The Minnesota Twins will send José Berríos to the hill against the New York Yankees in Game 1 tonight. Here are some notes on the Twins twenty-five year old right-hander.

Berríos doesn’t strike a lot of hitters out with a 23.2% strikeout rate, but he has good control (6.1% walk rate) and keeps the ball on the ground more often than not.

GB%LD%FB%PU%
42.9%24.0%25.2%7.8%

He probably hasn’t been as good as his 3.68 ERA looks. His low walk rate and ability to keep the ball in the ballpark put his FIP at 3.85, but his SIERA is 4.28, his DRA is 4.44, and his DRA- is 91 (rating him 9% above average in 2019).

According to Baseball Savant, Berríos uses a four-pitch repertoire: four-seam fastball (31.1%); curveball (28.9%); two-seam fastball (24.1%); and changeup (15.9%).

Against righties, he uses the curve (34.7%) and two-seamer (29.0%) more often, shelving the four-seamer (25.9%) and changeup (10.3%) somewhat. According to Brooks Baseball, when ahead in the count against righties, Berrios goes to the curve 39% of the time, and that remains the case with two-strikes. Righties still have to protect against Berríos’ two fastballs, which he uses about 50% of the time in both cases, mixing in the occasional change at a 10% clip. When righties are ahead, the Twins righty goes to his sinker 43% of the time, the most frequently he uses any pitch in any scenario, which might allow the Yankees righty-heavy lineup to hunt sinkers if Berríos gets behind. It won’t be as easy as it sounds as Berríos does a great job of locating his sinker low and in to right-handed hitters.

Left-handed batters see a heavier dose of four-seamers (36.3%) and a greater variety of Berríos’ secondary offerings, with the deuce and changeup being used almost evenly (23.1% to 21.2%) and the two-seamer not far behind at 19.4%. When Berríos is ahead on lefties, he goes to the four-seamer 44% of the time, and it’s also his most often-used pitch against them with two strikes at 41%. When ahead in the count, Yankees lefties will likely be looking for either of Berríos’ fastballs, which both get used around 30% of the time. Given their locations, lefties might be best-served preying on the four-seamer over the sinker.

The four-seamer also surrenders 45.8% fly balls compared to just 25.2% for the two-seamer. Trying to get the four-seamer in the air to right field feels like the right approach for lefties in Yankee Stadium.

Metric4-SeamCurve2-SeamChange
xwOBA.299.287.328.295
Whiff%24.3%29.0%12.8%29.0%
Avg. Velocity93.1 mph81.2 mph92.1 mph82.5 mph
Rise/Drop Above Avg.-0.8 in.-5.1 in.-0.2 in.2.9 in.
Hor. Break Above Avg.2.0 in.7.0 in.1.3 in.0.3 in.
Spin Rate2193 rpm2334 rpm2109 rpm1705 rpm

No one of Berríos’ pitches really stands out. Without a dominant offering to lean on, Berríos does a really good job of forcing hitters to constantly be aware of his whole arsenal, which you can see in the pitch mix outlined above. Other than the changeup, which gets about 9% greater drop than average, Berríos’ pitches don’t get much vertical movement compared to average. His game appears to be more about moving the ball in and out on hitters. His curveball gets 10% less drop than average, but 70% more glove-side break than the average curveball. His four-seamer gets 26% more arm-side run than average, and his two-seamer gets 9% more. Here’s what the four pitches look like.

Four-Seamer
Curveball
Two-Seamer
Changeup

In 2019, Berríos’ splits against righties and lefties were pretty even: a 3.80 FIP against lefties and 3.91 against righties. In his career, he’s been more successful against righties (3.86 FIP vs. righties to 4.34 vs. lefties) but only because his walk rate has historically been higher against lefties (9.7% vs. 5.6%). Berríos’ effectiveness against lefties likely lies in the strong tunneling effect of his four-seamer and curve to those digging into the left-handed batter’s box. The four-seamer and change also tunnel well together, but they vary at release by about 3.5 inches on average, which could give the Yankees hitters something to look for when trying to differentiate between the fastball and change.

With Paxton on the hill, the Twins will probably start Mitch Garver, the right-handed hitting half of their brilliant catcher platoon. Baseball Savant rates Garver above average at framing strikes on the middle edge of the plate near the right-handed batter’s box (63.9% of pitches called strikes), the middle edge of the plate near the left-handed batter’s box (63.8%), and in the middle of the plate at the bottom of the zone (57.8%). Garver’s framing ability in those specific locations could allow Berríos to steal some called strikes with his curveball (middle down), two-seamer (middle edges), and changeup (middle down). Garver’s a good amount below average at all four corners of the strike zone and slightly below at the top of the zone, so the Twins will be hoping for swings and misses on curveballs located near the corners of the strike zone and four-seamers at the top.

The righty hurler saw his average fastball velocities dip from July 31st to August 29th, but he appears to have bounced back since the start of September.

His rough second half was more bad luck than anything else. Despite having a 3.00 ERA in the first half and a 4.64 in the second, his FIPs were almost identical: 3.85 to 3.86. His left-on-base percentage and BABIP in the second half were to blame for the ERA spike. His LOB% decreased from 78.3% to 68.2%, and his BABIP increased from .276 to .333. He both struck out (25.2% to 21.6%) and walked (7.8% to 4.8%) more hitters in the second half, so the Yankees may look to be a little more patient than they otherwise would be, especially in a hostile playoff atmosphere for Berríos.

José Berríos is a solid pitcher who keeps hitters on their toes with an evenly distributed pitch mix. He keeps the ball on the ground and doesn’t give out many free passes, but he gives up a good amount of contact. For a lineup packed with high exit velocity hitters in a ballpark that has played small historically, the Yankees should feel good about that slightly above average contact rate going into Game 1.

ALDS Roster Note: The Yankees opted for Tyler Lyons over Stephen Tarpley for their lefty specialist role. In his 8.2 innings pitched with the Yankees in 2019, Lyons struck out 35.3% of hitters and walked only 5.9%. In his career, he’s been much more successful against righties than Tarpley (4.25 FIP vs. 7.12), which is likely why he got the roster spot. He’s not as dominant against lefties (3.64 FIP vs. Tarpley’s 2.28), but the Twins roster is highly platoonable, and their lineup will likely be structured to make it difficult for a pitcher to face two lefties in a row.

If You Build It, They Will Definitely Structure Their Roster Differently

The New York Yankees will kick off their 2019 postseason when the Minnesota Twins come to Yankee Stadium for Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Friday night. Before the team takes the field, Yankees manager Aaron Boone and the front office will have some difficult decisions to make as they assemble a twenty-five man roster for the series.

Some decisions are relatively easy, so it probably makes sense to start by getting those out of the way. First, the position players.

PlayerPosition
Gary SanchezC
Austin RomineC
DJ LeMahieuIF
Gleyber TorresIF
Didi GregoriusIF
Gio UrshelaIF
Aaron JudgeOF
Brett GardnerOF
Giancarlo StantonOF

And the pitching staff.

PlayerPosition
James PaxtonLHP
Masahiro TanakaRHP
Luis SeverinoRHP
J.A. HappLHP
Aroldis ChapmanLHP
Zack BrittonLHP
Adam OttavinoRHP
Tommy KahnleRHP
Chad GreenRHP

With those uncontroversial decisions settled, there seem to be four more to make: (i) whether to carry thirteen position players and twelve pitchers or vice versa; (ii) deciding between Luke Voit, Edwin Encarnacion, and Mike Ford at first base and designated hitter; (iii) deciding between Cameron Maybin, Tyler Wade, and Clint Frazier as extra outfielders; and (iv) filling out the final three or four pitching staff vacancies.

1. 13 and 12 vs. 12 and 13

The Yankees are likely rolling out this starting rotation in the ALDS.

GameStarting PitcherDate
Game 1James PaxtonFriday, October 4
Game 2Masahiro TanakaSaturday, October 5
Game 3Luis SeverinoMonday, October 7
Game 4Chad Green to J.A. HappTuesday, October 8
Game 5James PaxtonThursday, October 10

In a full five-game series, you need your pitchers to cover at least 45 innings. In a very good world for the Yankees, Paxton probably covers thirteen of those, Masahiro Tanaka covers six, Severino covers five, and Green and Happ combine to cover six in Game 4. In this scenario, you only need fifteen innings from your bullpen over seven days. Before opening Game 4, Green should be available for two innings if needed in Games 1 and 2. Pencil Chapman, Britton, Ottavino, and Kahnle in for three each, and you’re asking your final three pitchers for one inning to round things out. In this case, Boone has hardly used those extra pitchers to get him a nice platoon matchup or eat innings in a possible extra inning game or blowout.

Against an offense like Minnesota’s in ballparks like Yankee Stadium and Target Field, this could easily break down. Maybe you only get ten total from Paxton, four from Tanaka in Game 2, and three from Severino in Game 3. If Green and Happ only get you four innings in a Game 4, all of the sudden, you’re asking your bullpen for twenty-four innings. In a Game 5, it’s obviously all hands on deck. You could have Tanaka ready to back up Paxton in the win-or-go-home scenario for two or three innings. Maybe Green can give you three innings outside of Game 4 in this scenario. Let’s say you ask Ottavino and Kahnle for four each and get three each from Chapman and Britton. In that case, you need four innings from three other pitchers. That doesn’t seem crazy. Even if you up that number to six, it doesn’t feel like the end of the world. And, let’s be honest, if things wind up going this way, the Yankees probably aren’t advancing to the ALCS and not having a thirteenth pitcher on the roster won’t be why.

An extra bench piece feels more necessary, especially on a roster that might be carrying pinch running candidates like Gary Sanchez, Austin Romine, Luke Voit, Edwin Encarnacion, Mike Ford, and even DJ LeMahieu or Giancarlo Stanton off a knee injury. A late game defensive replacement for Stanton in left or one of the first basemen at some point seems like a certainty. Lifting Didi Gregorius in a big at bat against a tough lefty like Taylor Rogers might seem like something that would get Aaron Boone excommunicated by the Yankee faithful, but Didi hasn’t been himself since coming back from Tommy John, and wouldn’t you rather have Edwin Encarnación’s career .374 wOBA and 132 wRC+ or Luke Voit’s .373 and 135 against lefties over Didi’s .295 wOBA and 82 wRC+ in that spot? That means sliding Torres over to short and either LeMahieu moving to second (in the event he starts at first) or Tyler Wade immediately coming in for Encarnación. With only a three-man bench, one of whom is your backup catcher, Aaron Boone seems extremely limited in his ability to make those types of moves.

Verdict: Thirteen position players and twelve pitchers.

2. Luke Voit vs. Edwin Encarnacion vs. Mike Ford

When the Yankees added Edwin Encarnación in June, it seemed like an exercise in excess. A team stacked with power and Luke Voit putting together a solid follow-up to his 2018 Yankees debut didn’t seem to need another slugger at 1B/DH. With Encarnación attempting to return from an oblique injury without seeing live pitching and Voit mired in a 1-for-32 slump since September 15th and slashing .200/.319/.338 since returning from the injured list on August 30th, first base depth has unexpectedly become an issue.

The Princeton University product Mike Ford stepped up in a big way in the second half. In thirty-nine games since August 4th, Ford has slashed .274/.333/.619 with eleven homers. In addition to his MLB breakout, Ford put together a phenomenal season at AAA. He hit for a .419 wOBA and a 151 wRC+, which ranked him ninth in that category among all AAA hitters with at least 250 plate appearances in 2019. Here’s how Ford’s 2019 stacks up against Voit’s and Encarnación’s.

MetricLuke VoitEdwin EncarnaciónMike Ford
PA510486163
wOBA.360.362.372
wRC+126129134
DRC+118132125
xwOBA.365.359.359
Exit Velocity89.7 mph90.0 mph91.9 mph
Exit Velocity FB/LD95.4 mph94.4 mph92.4 mph
Launch Angle12.8 degrees22.5 degrees15.6 degrees

These numbers are all extremely close, although Voit and Eddie have obviously done it over a much larger number of plate appearances. Let’s look at some fielding numbers from 2019.

MetricLuke VoitEdwin EncarnaciónMike Ford
Innings706.1489.0217.0
DRS-6-1-1
UZR-3.9-0.9-1.5
UZR/150-11.9-1.8-11.6

It might surprise you to see that Encarnación is the clear favorite in fielding metrics, but he’s actually rated around average at first base since the start of 2015. Against the Twins probable Game 3 starter Martín Pérez, if Encarnación is healthy enough to make the roster, that allows the Yankees to sit Gregorius, play Torres at short, LeMahieu at second, and stack the lineup with righties against the lefty without losing much in terms of defense at first base. Perez’s 2019 and career splits against righties and lefties are below.

Date Range2019Career
wOBA Allowed vs. R.353.352
wOBA Allowed vs. L.260.283
FIP vs. R5.134.81
FIP vs. L3.023.34

You get the feeling that, if Encarnación is 100% after simulated games on Tuesday and Wednesday (and he apparently is), the established slugger is going to have a spot on this playoff roster. Despite not playing against Texas over the weekend, the New York Post reported that Eddie was showing plenty of power in batting practice last week. This decision is likely between Voit and Ford.

Let’s take a closer look at Voit’s slump. Since August 30th, he’s hit for a .295 wOBA. In that same time span, Ford has hit for a .448 wOBA. But those numbers aren’t telling the whole story. When looking at xwOBA (expected wOBA based on exit velocity and launch angle of batted balls), things get closer: Voit’s xwOBA is .342 since his return from the IL, and Ford sits at .380.

Voit’s slump has been at its deepest since September 15th. His 1-for-32 mark translates to an absolutely abysmal .133 wOBA. Ford’s wOBA over that span: .520. But let’s account for some batted ball luck and take another look at xwOBA to assess quality of contact: Voit’s xwOBA still isn’t pretty, but it’s an improvement at .256. Ford clearly saw some good luck over the last two weeks of the season as his xwOBA was just .327.

Exit velocity can often be an indicator of a hitter’s health. The concern may be that Voit is still suffering from the abdominal strain that landed him on the IL. His average exit velocity on batted balls since August 30th is 91.1 mph, higher than his season average and equal to Ford’s over that time frame. Since September 15th, Voit’s average exit velocity is 91.8 mph. Below is a graph from Baseball Savant showing his rolling exit velocity, which has been rising steadily since his return (the point almost directly between the 225 and 250 marks on the x-axis).

There are a few things to conclude from the discussion above. First of all, Voit’s slump has appeared worse than it actually has been. While he’s definitely struggled, he appears to have also hit into some bad batted ball luck along the way. Secondly, Voit appears to be healthy: his exit velocity is in line with past performance and actually looks to be on the rise.

Mike Ford has had a lot of success in fifty games for the Yankees and at AAA this season. In addition to the numbers above, Ford has an above average walk rate at 10.4% (8.5% is average in 2019) and a strikeout rate much lower than the major league average (23.0% in 2019) at 17.2%. The Athletic’s Eno Sarris recently pointed out that teams that put the ball in play more often tend to fare better in the postseason. That fact certainly makes Ford slightly more attractive, especially compared to a 27.8% strikeout rate from Voit in 2019. But Ford’s success has still only come in fifty major league games. The Yankees have now witnessed 157 games and 658 plate appearances by Luke Voit against major league pitching. Here are Voit’s MLB ranks among the 318 hitters with at least 500 plate appearances since the start of 2018.

MetricLuke Voit (2018-2019)MLB Rank (min. 500 PA)
wOBA.38118th
xwOBA.38314th
wRC+14115th
ISO.23845th
BB%13.1%26th

Ford has been a big part of what has enabled the Yankees to withstand so many injuries and still win over 100 games, and he’s definitely an easy guy to root for. It hurts more than a little bit to leave him off the playoff roster, but expect the Yankees to bet on the larger sample size of dominant offense over the smaller one.

Verdict: Voit and Encarnación over Ford.

3. Maybin vs. Wade vs. Frazier

This one should be quick and dirty.

MetricCameron MaybinTyler WadeClint Frazier
PA269108246
wOBA.362.303.333
xwOBA.339.288.309
wRC+12788108
DRC+1067399
DRS0-3-8
UZR-0.2-1.2-5.2
UZR/150-0.2-16.0-16.7

Fortunately for Maybin, he’s the only legitimate fourth outfielder option here, so he walks right onto the postseason roster. His fielding metrics rate him as an average defensive outfielder this season, which neither Wade nor Frazier can say.

Frazier is a talented young hitter, but he hasn’t really shown much in 2019, and he certainly hasn’t fielded the position. According to Baseball Savant, Red Thunder has converted -13 outs above average in the Yankees outfield this season. He’s had particular trouble coming in on balls, where he’s rated ten outs below average. With a history of concussions, you might think that Frazier is playing deeper in the outfield to mitigate the danger of going back on balls at full speed, preventing him from getting to balls in front of him, but that hasn’t been the case. Below are Frazier’s starting depths in left and right field in 2017, 2018, and 2019 according to Baseball Savant.

SeasonAvg. Depth in LFAvg. Depth in RF
2017299295
2018304N/A
2019293296

It looks like Frazier did play deeper in left in 2018, but he’s played shallower in left in 2019 than ever before and about even with his past depth in right. Frazier’s sprint speed might be to blame for his poor fielding. After posting marks of 28.8 ft/s in 2017 (89th percentile) and 28.2 ft/s in 2018 (78th percentile), Frazier’s sprint speed has decreased to 27.4 ft/s in 2019 (61st percentile). According to Statcast, his fielding has deteriorated each year, but it’s reached a nadir in 2019. His -13% catch percentage added (the percentage of catches an outfielder makes above or below what an average outfielder would be expected to make based on the exit velocity and launch angle of batted balls hit to that fielder) ranks him last of 183 outfielders with at least fifty fielding opportunities. The next closest outfielder has recorded a -7% catch percentage added. If he’s not going to make an impact with the bat, the Yankees just can’t afford to roster Frazier in the playoffs.

Wade’s defensive numbers above are based on 98.0 innings in the major league outfield in 2019. Obviously, Wade has much more experience playing infield and rates about average at second, short, and third. He may not play even average outfield defense (Baseball Savant has him at -1 OAA and -4% catch percentage added), but his versatility in the field make him an asset, especially for a team that has toyed with the idea of using five infielders when Zack Britton’s on the mound. If you’re thinking about pinch running, Wade’s average sprint speed of 29.1 ft/s makes him the fastest Yankee and ranks him in the ninety-third percentile in the league. Actually, Terrance Gore is faster at 29.9 ft/s, but even Wade is a better option to take an emergency playoff at bat than Gore. Wade’s defensive versatility and speed give him the edge over Frazier.

Verdict: Maybin and Wade over Frazier.

4. The Bullpen

The Yankees have five studs in their bullpen that they feel comfortable with against both lefties and righties late in games: Chapman, Britton, Ottavino, Kahnle, and Green (who will likely open in Game 4). Right now, the field for the remaining three vacancies seems to include the following pitchers: Luis Cessa, Jonathan Loaisiga, Stephen Tarpley, Cory Gearrin, Ben Heller, and David Hale. According to Meredith Marakovits, CC Sabathia won’t be on the ALDS roster. Green could handle a slightly longer role in Games 1 or 2 if needed, but without Sabathia, the Yankees seem like they will need at least one long man out of this group.

David Hale only pitched in one uninspiring outing in the final weekend of regular season, and his success earlier in the year was mostly predicated on a low walk rate, unsustainably high infield fly ball rate, and unsustainably low home run per fly ball rate. Despite a 50.0% ground ball rate, all of that combined with a very below average 14.7% strikeout rate make it more likely than not that Hale’s results were more a house of cards than anything else.

Ben Heller had a nice run with an increase in slider usage in 7.1 innings pitched this September, but he wasn’t nearly dominant enough to earn himself a roster spot in such a short stint. His 1.23 ERA belies his 3.76 FIP and 5.06 DRA.

One strategy would be to use two of the last three roster spots on matchup guys. Tarpley and Gearrin are the Yankees most severe platoon options, and together, they might make up one very solid reliever.

MetricStephen TarpleyCory Gearrin
FIP vs. L (Career)2.284.90
K% vs. L (Career)41.3%15.8%
BB% vs. L (Career)12.7%12.9%
xwOBA vs. L (since 2015).247.342
FIP vs. R7.123.24
K% vs. R21.7%25.4%
BB% vs. R13.4%8.5%
xwOBA vs. R (since 2015).417.285

This idea is really attractive in theory, but it feels like a difficult one to pull the trigger on. Tarpley has only faced 63 lefty hitters at the major league level in his career, though the numbers are impressive at AAA since 2018 as well (0.99 ERA, thirty-five strikeouts, and nineteen combined walks and hits allowed in 27.2 innings pitched). His slider, which he’s thrown 47.4% of the time this season, is his only weapon (.270 xwOBA against); his sinker (.497) and four-seamer (.427), which sit between 92 and 93 mph, get absolutely hammered. Without CC on the roster, however, there could be a need for another lefty in the pen.

Since joining the Yankees on August 24th, Gearrin’s tenure has been unimpressive: a 4.79 FIP, 5.77 xFIP, 5.25 SIERA, 5.43 DRA, 111 DRA-, and 13.1% strikeout rate don’t scream playoff roster material. In 2019, his splits against righties have slipped a bit compared to his career numbers, as Gearrin’s seen a decrease in FIP (3.60), strikeout rate (21.4%), and ground ball rate (48.9% to 42.7%) and an increase in xwOBA against (.313) versus righties. A decrease in horizontal slider movement every year since 2017 (3.3 inches above average in 2017 to 1.1 below average in 2018 to 2.5 below in 2019) is probably a large part of what’s behind his declining effectiveness against righties.

When you look at his results compared to his stuff, Jonathan Loaisiga has certainly been a disappointment.

SeasonFIPSIERADRAxwOBAK%BB%
20194.954.345.33.32426.6%11.5%

Loaisiga throws a four-seam fastball 47.7% of the time with an average velocity of approximately 97 mph and 1.2 inches more rise than the average four-seamer at similar velocities, good for 100th among 432 qualified pitchers according to Baseball Savant. His curveball, which typically sits around 84 mph, apparently has below average drop but about an inch above average glove-side break (ninety-eighth of 275 pitchers). Despite a seemingly average movement profile, the curve has completely devastated hitters.

SeasonwOBAxwOBAWhiff%SwStr%
2018.291.21740.5%18.1%
2019.127.12145.8%20.3%

According to numbers available at Baseball Prospectus, Loaisiga’s four-seamer and curveball tunnel well together to both lefties and righties, which helps explain the effectiveness in the absence of elite movement. Let’s go to the tape.

The shape of Jonny Lasagna’s curve certainly looks like a high fastball out of the hand and buckles hitters as it starts to break sharply down and towards the left-handed batter’s box.

Remember when Lance McCullers threw twenty-four consecutive curveballs to close out ALCS Game 7 in 2017? This is a weapon you want in the playoffs. Loaisiga only threw his curveball 30.8% of the time in the regular season. Even though it has elite velocity and above average rise, his four-seam fastball consistently gives up loud contact (.423 xwOBA in 2018; .450 in 2019). Loaisiga is fairly predictable with the four-seamer. He uses it around sixty percent of the time on the first pitch and about half the time when even or with the batter ahead to both lefties and righties. With a four-seamer that doesn’t see great results and with a lethal curveball in his pocket, Loaisiga may want to consider pitching backwards more often and getting his curveball usage at least up over forty percent if not to around fifty. One final note on Loaisiga: since August 20th, he has started using a two-seam fastball around 18% of the time with decent results (xwOBA against of .329), which could be something to could an eye on. Control and command are certainly issues for Loaisiga, but his hammer is a powerful threat that the Yankees have to hope to harness in the postseason.

Without Sabathia, you likely need one more long man. In that case, Luis Cessa feels like the obvious choice. Cessa has eaten 81 innings for the Yankees in 2019 and has been fairly reliable if not unremarkable: a 4.87 FIP, 4.30 SIERA, 4.82 DRA, and a 21.9% strikeout rate. Cessa doesn’t really possess favorable splits with career FIPs of 4.52 and 5.30 against lefties and righties, respectively. His slider is his most effective pitch (.306 xwOBA in 2017, .218 in 2018, .245 in 2019), but he’s already throwing it 49.9% of the time in 2019. This version of Cessa appears to be his ceiling. The hope is that the Yankees only need the right-hander in mop-up duty in a blowout in their favor, but he will be useful to have in a deep extra inning game.

Give me Tarpley against a tough lefty in a spot where Boone isn’t quite ready to go to Kahnle, Britton, or Chapman or those options have already been exhausted, Loaisiga throwing curveball after curveball, and Cessa for length if and when the Yankees need it.

Verdict: Tarpley, Loaisiga, and Cessa in the bullpen.

The New York Yankees American League Division Series Roster

Position Players

PlayerPosition
Gary SanchezC
Austin RomineC
Edwin EncarnaciónIF
Luke VoitIF
DJ LeMahieuIF
Gleyber TorresIF
Didi GregoriusIF
Gio UrshelaIF
Aaron JudgeOF
Brett GardnerOF
Giancarlo StantonOF
Cameron MaybinOF
Tyler WadeUT

Pitchers

PlayerPosition
James PaxtonLHP
Luis SeverinoRHP
Masahiro TanakaRHP
J.A. HappLHP
Aroldis ChapmanLHP
Zack BrittonLHP
Adam OttavinoRHP
Tommy KahnleRHP
Chad GreenRHP
Jonathan LoaisigaRHP
Stephen TarpleyLHP
Luis CessaRHP

Hope For Happ

It would be a major understatement to call 2019 a disappointing season for New York Yankees left-handed starter J.A. Happ. After the Yankees acquired Happ from the Toronto Blue Jays at the 2018 non-waiver trade deadline, he went 7-0 in eleven starts with a 2.69 ERA, .676 OPS against, and sixty-three strikeouts to sixteen walks over 63.2 innings pitched. After that solid stretch run, Happ gave up five runs in two innings in an ALDS Game 1 loss against the eventual World Series Champion Boston Red Sox.

Since signing a two-year contract worth $34 million with a $17 million vesting player option for 2021, which triggers if Happ throws 165 innings or makes 27 starts in 2020, the thirty-six year old has been more ALDS disaster than solid stretch run for the Yankees. Below are his 2018 and 2019 numbers.

SeasonERAFIPK%BB%HR/FB%
20183.653.9826.3%7.0%13.4%
20195.105.3820.2%7.3%18.9%

Except for his walk rate, Happ’s seen his statistics deteriorate drastically across the board. Given the league-wide home run surge, his home run rate has not spiked as much as it appears, but it is still above the 2019 major league average. He has the second-worst FIP of all sixty-eight qualified starting pitchers after Seattle Mariners lefty Yusei Kikuchi. According to Statcast, Happ has seen his velocity diminish on most of his offerings as well. Happ throws an occasional curveball, but due to its infrequent use, it is not included in the table below.

Pitch2018 Avg. Velocity2019 Avg. Velocity
Four-Seam92.3 mph91.9 mph
Sinker90.4 mph89.5 mph
Slider85.3 mph84.8 mph
Changeup86.0 mph86.0 mph

The low point of Happ’s season was likely on August 9th at Toronto. He surrendered six runs over five innings on four hits, three walks, and three home runs. The 6’5 southpaw allowed a .467 xwOBA against for the game, the second-worst mark of his season other than his first start of the season against the Orioles on March 31st. The start against the Blue Jays raised Happ’s ERA to 5.48, and it would rise even higher before it would start to fall.

Over his next five starts, which include a start where he allowed five runs in four innings to the Oakland Athletics on August 21st, Happ is 3-1 with a 3.42 ERA, a .557 OPS against, three home runs given up, and twenty-nine strikeouts in 26.1 innings pitched. Here are his numbers before and after August 14th.

Date RangeERAFIPK%BB%wOBAxwOBA
3/31 – 8/95.485.6718.6%6.3%.350.335
8/14 – 9/73.424.0927.9%12.5%.255.261

Thirteen walks in 26.1 innings are responsible for Happ’s slightly inflated FIP, but he’s otherwise improved in every aspect. Happ is missing a lot more bats and inducing much weaker contact. The average exit velocity on the batted balls against Happ has decreased from 89.2 miles per hour prior to August 14 to 86.1 miles per hour from August 14th on.

The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler noted in an article over the weekend that Happ feels he’s in a better place mentally now than earlier in the season. Happ also seemed to credit throwing first pitch strikes more often for his recent success, which is puzzling given that his first pitch strike rate through August 9th was 57.9% and 54.8% from August 14th on. Even if you alter the cutoff to be August 21st, when Happ had his poor start against the Oakland Athletics, his first pitch strike rate up to and including that game was 57.3% and has been 58.1% after that start.

Happ might be enjoying a better mindset on the mound, but getting strike one more often doesn’t look like what’s driving his turnaround. The keys to Happ’s recent success appear to be some changes in his pitch mix and the location of his sinkers to lefties and his four-seamers against righties.

Date RangeBatter HandednessExit Velo.Launch AnglexwOBA
3/31 – 8/9Left87.1 mph5.9 degrees.295
8/14 – 9/7Left80.4 mph4.7 degrees.119
3/31 – 8/9Right89.9 mph15.6 degrees.348
8/14 – 9/7Right87.8 mph17.2 degrees.308

Happ has had better success against both righties and lefties in his recent five-game stint, and he’s really been stifling lefties lately.

Below are two tables from Brooks Baseball showing Happ’s pitch mixes from March 31st through August 9th and from August 14th through September 7th.

Against lefties, Happ has dropped the use of slider by nine percent overall and thirteen percent when he’s ahead in the count. He’s using his sinker and four-seamer more often in all counts, and his sinker has become his primary offering when he’s ahead of hitters, particularly with two strikes. With batters on the ropes in two strike counts, Happ’s increased his sinker usage against lefties by eighteen percent and dropped his slider usage by twenty-three percent.

Against righties, Happ has ditched his sinker for his four-seam fastball: his sinker usage against righties has decreased by thirteen percent to just five percent, and his four-seam usage is up from fifty-one percent to sixty-one percent. Happ’s upped his slider usage against righties by four percent overall and a whopping twenty-one percent on the first pitch. Maybe being more comfortable starting righties out with his slider is what he was referring to in his comments about the first pitch.

Let’s see how lefties have fared against Happ’s sinker.

Date RangeExit Velo.Launch AnglexwOBA
3/31 – 8/984.8 mph2.3 degrees.263
8/14 – 9/775.1 mph-21.6 degrees.102

The results are much better. Lefties are making worse contact on average and absolutely pounding his sinkers into the ground. Location might have something to do with the improvement.

In the heat maps above, you can see that Happ was leaving a lot of sinkers out over the middle of the plate to lefties. Lately, he’s done a much better job of getting the sinker inside on lefties, especially low and in just off the inside corner. That location is likely to get hitters to swing over the top of the sinker for more whiffs and get in on lefties’ hands for weak contact. Here’s J.P. Crawford with a swing and a miss on August 26th.

And Happ sawing off Matt Olson for an easy double-play on September 1st.

Finally, Happ gets Matt Olson to ground out weakly into the shift in the same game.

Let’s turn to righties against Happ’s four-seam fastball.

Date RangeExit Velo.Launch AnglexwOBA
3/31 – 8/992.0 mph27.8 degrees.369
8/14 – 9/788.3 mph31.8 degrees.220

Happ’s numbers have also vastly improved with the four-seamer against righties. It’s encouraging to see a higher launch angle here, as that means Happ has likely been seeing more lazy fly balls and less hard-hit line drives and fly balls.

Happ has made a massive shift in his four-seam fastball locations to righties. It looks like he’s targeting the upper middle part of the zone less often and looks to have taken aim at the outside part of the plate. Keeping the four-seamer away from righties rather than getting them to swing underneath the fastball might make some sense given the movement profile on Happ’s four-seamer this season.

SeasonVelo.V-MovVM vs. Avg.H-MovHM vs. Avg.
201892.3 mph14.7 in.1.6 in. (10%)7.1 in.0.0 in. (0%)
201991.9 mph15.4 in.1.1 in. (7%)8.1 in.1.3 in. (20%)

Happ’s four-seamer is dropping more in 2019 and doesn’t have as much rise as it did in 2018. That alone might make the middle-up location less effective for Happ in 2019 as hitters are less likely to swing underneath the old number one. In 2019, when the ball is leaving the park at record rates, throwing pitches in a spot that frequently leads to fly balls is probably not the greatest strategy if you aren’t missing a ton of bats.

While the rise on Happ’s fastball has decreased, the arm-side run on the pitch has drastically increased. He’s getting a full inch more movement away from right-handed hitters on the four-seamer, good for twenty percent more run than the average sinker in 2019. That increase in tailing action may make the outside part of the plate a smart location against righties, who are expecting the pitch to continue towards the heart of the plate but wind up seeing it dart back outside instead. That movement could be helping Happ get more whiffs and worse contact. Watch as Happ rings up Chad Pinder on August 21st.

Matt Chapman fails to pull this four-seamer on September 1st.

Xander Bogaerts flails at a four-seam fastball on the outside corner on September 7th.

Even before the newfound arm-side run on his four-seamer, you can see that Happ targeted the outside part of the plate with the pitch frequently in 2018.

It’s possible that the location of his four-seamers against righties had become too predictable in 2019. Whether it’s the movement, location, lack of predictability, or a combination of all three, Happ seems to have figured something out.

One other encouraging late-season trend has emerged for Happ: the lefty has also regained some velocity as the season has progressed. Below are charts from Baseball Savant detailing the average velocities on his four-seam fastball, sinker, and slider in each game this season.

J.A. Happ might be coming around at the right time for the New York Yankees. As rough of a season as it’s been for Happ, his recent success seems to be supported by some underlying changes that might make those improvements sustainable. If Happ’s success continues on today against the Detroit Tigers and throughout the rest of September, it might make sense to slot him in as the Yankees’ fourth starter in the playoffs and hope for a solid four or five innings before the bullpen takes over. Germán (5.68 ERA and 5.90 FIP since May 26th) might be hitting a wall and likely profiles better as a bullpen arm than Happ. If not, Happ’s recent numbers against lefties look really good from a lefty specialist out of the pen. At the very least, Happ’s recent run has given the Yankees front office a few reasons to look at him as a useful option on the playoff roster.