Last Sunday, I dug a bit into Baseball Prospectus' new pitching metrics, in another effort to crack the enigmatic Nathan Eovaldi and Michael Pineda. It turned out that concepts such as pitch tunnels, command, and control did help explain some, but not all, of the frustration that Pineda and Eovaldi have caused the Yankees the past couple years.
Today, I wanted to look at the Yankees' staff through a lens introduced by BP, called "Two ways to tunnel.” Again, I encourage you to read through all of BP's new stuff, as it as interesting as it is potentially enlightening. Put most simply, pitch tunneling refers to the ability of a pitcher to deceive the hitter by keeping all of his pitches in a narrow “tunnel.” If all the pitches he throws are from the same release point, and all travel on a similar trajectory up to the tunnel point at which the batter must decide to swing, then the pitcher can keep the hitter in the dark about what's coming.
The aforementioned two ways to tunnel are straightforward: one can go the Greg Maddux route, or the Barry Zito route. This is a simplification of a complex subject, but it's sensible. Maddux might be the father of pitch tunnels. In a piece on Maddux, the Washington Post's Thomas Boswell wrote "(Maddux) honed the same release point, the same look, to all his pitches, so there was less way to know its speed—like fastball 92 mph, slider 84, change-up 76." To Maddux, it didn't matter if his stuff wasn't eye-popping, if he could just make all his pitches look the same as they approached the hitter.
The Zito-approach is the opposite. Zito did not make an effort to confuse hitters: he changed release points and arm angles on different pitches, and opposing batters surely had a decent idea what was coming. Zito's strategy clearly was to get ahead in the count with fastballs, and bury the hitter with wicked breaking balls. It didn't matter that all his pitches looked different immediately out of his hand because they moved so darn much.
So, into what bucket do the Yankees pitchers fall? Are their hurlers best suited to overwhelm, like Zito, or deceive, like Maddux? Let's take a look:
The most Maddux-esque starter the Yankees have is almost certainly Masahiro Tanaka. That isn't to say Tanaka doesn't have good stuff, but the way he utilizes his wide array of pitches puts him in line with Maddux. Despite throwing several different pitches, Tanaka's tunnel differential of 9.5 inches was among the lowest in the league (for a refresher on what terms like "tunnel differential" mean, refer to either BP's primer or my last piece). Tanaka's pitches also displayed less than average late break, and did not have a large spread in speed. They did, however, come from a refined release point, as Tanaka's release differential of 2.06 inches was well below league average.
Tanaka also rated quite well with a 1.2% CSAA (called strikes above average), BP's proxy for command, which measures how many called strikes a pitcher generates above expectation. Tanaka basically has the Maddux plan down pat. His pitches don't move wildly or particularly quickly, but they all look very similar out of his hand, and he has the command to use them most effectively.
The Yankees' wiliest veteran, CC Sabathia, also is notably Maddux-like. He has one non-Maddux trait, in that his tunnel differential was wide, at an above average 10.7 inches. However, Sabathia's release differential was just 2.0 inches, and his pitches had little late break and a narrow velocity spread. Plus, Sabathia has been forced to harness his command as he has aged, and his CSAA of 1.8% was among the game's elite. He might not have the same tunnel as Maddux, but he resembles Maddux in many other ways at this point.
The clearest Zito on the Yankees is probably Luis Severino. Severino has talked openly about how his release point was a bit out of whack last season, and the numbers corroborate that story: his release differential was over 3.1 inches, one of the largest spreads in the league. His tunnel differential was also a higher than average 10.1 inches.
Severino did, however, have an above average level of late break, and any Yankee fan that has watched him knows he has potentially overpowering stuff. He can sit mid-90's as a starter and approach triple digits as a reliever. Of course, he has been essentially a two-pitch pitcher, so if Severino can't either harness a third pitch or curtail his walk and home run problems, it will be difficult for him to unlock his potential as an overwhelming, Zito-type starter.
Eovaldi is also worth mentioning, even if he isn't currently on the Yankees. Eovaldi struggles with command, and has a huge disparity between pitches at both the release and tunnel points. He does possess elite velocity and potentially worthwhile secondaries, so while it's unknown if he'll ever suit up in pinstripes again, he has been a notable Zito for the Yankees in the past.
It feels absolutely fitting that Michael Pineda is difficult to group into either category. The case for Zito: Pineda, like Zito, is predictable. He attacks hitters with fastballs to get ahead, and tries to put them away with a sharp slider. He has impressive stuff, and lacks the requisite command of most Maddux-like pitchers.
The case for Maddux: Pineda's level of deception rates surprisingly well. His tunnel differential and release differential are both much smaller than league average, and his pitches don't differ widely velocity-wise. At gun point, I might lean Zito for Pineda, due to his flashy stuff and lack of command, but he really does exhibit an odd combination of traits from both camps.
The Yankees’ most successful recent pitchers appear to have taken the Maddux-route, but that doesn't mean it is the only effective way to pitch. Pitchers on opposite ends of the pitch tunneling spectrum, from Bartolo Colon to Rich Hill, can find unique ways to fluster hitters. And as Pineda helpfully illustrates, placing pitchers into these two buckets can be imprecise. Even so, BP's new metrics provide an interesting way to view the Yankees' pitchers, and will be worth monitoring going forward to see if their strategies change at all during the upcoming season.