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 a 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 (1,886 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
14.9%/45.9%/39.2%Soft/Med/Hard Contact21.5%/43.7%/34.8%

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

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 EncarnaciĆ³n 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.