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 eliminated 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 pitch 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.