Some players are models of consistency. Brett Gardner has spent the past several years displaying almost the exact same level of contact skills, patience, and defensive capability. Dellin Betances dominates hitters with insane strikeout rates every year. Even Michael Pineda is fairly reliable in his consistent inconsistency.
Conversely, other players seem malleable. One of the more interesting developments in baseball is when players simply change their games, demonstrating the ability to play the game differently than the way they did before. Probably the coolest thing about Mike Trout, other than the fact that he is the best player in baseball every year, is that he constantly alters how he does it. Sometimes he hits 40 home runs, sometimes he leads the league in walks, sometimes he steals 49 bases and is the best defensive center fielder in the league.
There are several Yankees that have shown the ability to change their game as well. Let’s take a look at some of those players, and highlight which Yankees underwent the most clear changes to their fundamental games this season.
One of the early storylines of this Yankee season was Tanaka’s desertion of his four-seam fastball. After throwing the four-seamer about one fifth of the time during his first two MLB seasons, Tanaka almost completely cut the pitch from his repertoire to start 2016. He threw the four-seamer just 22 times over his first four starts, according to Brooks Baseball. Here’s a visual of his four-seam usage, along with his corresponding usage of his two-seamer and slider:
Clearly, Tanaka relied heavily in the early-going on his slider and sinker, while leaving the fastball to the wayside. Yet in the final weeks of the season, Tanaka resuscitated his four-seamer, using it as much as his other primary pitches. Even within the season, Tanaka showed the ability to adapt, ratcheting up his four-seam usage, perhaps when the league took notice of his reticence to use the pitch.
Still, his overall season usage of the four-seamer was just about 9%, while his sinker and slider usage both increased. This could have been in response to a velocity drop. After sitting near 93 mph with his four-seamer in 2015, Tanaka averaged almost exactly 92 mph on the pitch in 2016.
Even with a drop in velocity, Tanaka was still excellent, striking out nearly five times the batters he walked and posting a 3.07 ERA. It’s not a great sign that Tanaka didn’t throw as hard, but is undeniably a good sign for his future that he adjusted his game to maintain his effectiveness.
In recent years, Sabathia’s hand has been forced. He has had to learn to pitch differently than he did when he was able to challenge batters with 96 mph fastballs early in his career. This seemed to be the first season where Sabathia was able to successfully turn himself into a different pitcher than his younger self.
Sabathia had fine control when he was younger, routinely walking about two batters per nine innings in his prime. Yet he had a large margin for error, as in his first season in New York, 2009, his average fastball velocity was over 95 mph. This allowed Sabathia to relentlessly attack the strike zone. According to FanGraphs, Sabathia’s zone rate over the first eight seasons of his career was a sky high 52.8%. The league average rate in 2016 was just 44.6%.
He cannot get away with doing that anymore, and Sabathia may have learned that the hard way. As his stuff waned, he became increasingly homer prone, as he posted a debilitating 15.5% HR/FB rate between 2013-2015. He also posted a .316 BABIP over that span after consistently running sub-.300 BABIPs as a young pitcher. Both of those metrics are quite sensitive to luck, but it’s probably not a coincidence that batters seemed to square up Sabathia more as his stuff declined.
In 2016, Sabathia seemed to finally embrace an old-man repertoire. First, he lived less in the strike zone, posting the second lowest zone rate of his career at 44.1%. His walk rate spiked to its highest rate in over a decade, but living on the edges of the zone and walking a few batters is the cost of doing business at age 36. Second, Sabathia scrapped his four-seamer almost entirely, instead opting for a cut-fastball that sat in the mid to high 80’s.
The decision proved salient. Sabathia’s four-seamer got shellacked in 2015, to the tune of a .300 batting average and .467 slugging according to Brooks Baseball, with 25% of fly balls going for home runs. In 2016, Sabathia used the cutter 31.6% of the time, and it was hit for just a .224 average and .367 slugging. He generated an above average rate of ground balls using the cutter, while allowing a below average amount of line drives and fly balls.
Sabathia’s full acceptance of his limitations as a pitcher appeared to yield his best season in years. Opposing hitters had trouble squaring up pitches against him, as Sabathia’s average exit velocity allowed of 85.3 mph was startlingly low. He totaled 179.2 innings and 2.6 fWAR despite relying on an assortment of pitches that don’t break 90 mph. There’s no guarantee that he’ll be able to keep it up in his age-37 season, but that he was able to adjust so effectively this season provides hope that Sabathia’s twilight in pinstripes will be fondly remembered.