It seems something dies in baseball every other week. We write obituaries for the .350 hitter, the 200-inning pitcher, and the old school manager. Yankee fans in particular have also decried the death of the fastball, as the organization makes it a point to move their players off the number one.
This has caused some consternation for those following the team’s acquisition of James Paxton, a powerful left-hander with one of the best fastballs in baseball. Trading for him has drawn comparisons to the 2017 trade for Sonny Gray, who fell off a cliff in terms of run prevention for the Yankees and seems to be on his way out of town.
One of the reasons for Gray’s decline, in the eyes of many, has been that he fell victim to the Yankees’ preference for fewer fastballs. Since 2015, his fastball usage has steadily declined from 36.5% in 2015 to 25.7% this season, and he began throwing fewer fastballs as soon as he was traded, dropping from 31.6% with the As pre-trade to 29% with the Yankees in 2017.
The thing is, from the Yankees’ perspective, that makes sense. Sonny Gray doesn’t have a great fastball - it hovers right around 93 mph and the pitch values year over year aren’t that impressive, especially when compared to his very good slider. The move away from a fastball hasn’t worked for Gray, but it’s a problem of execution, not theory.
As it is, James Paxton’s best comp on the Yankees isn’t Gray, it’s Luis Severino. Both pitchers actually have good fastballs:
Pitch values can be volatile, but what you can see and get real value out of are trends. Since rebuilding his delivery, Paxton has steadily gotten better and better with his primary pitch, and Severino has done the same since his sophomore slump. Gray, meanwhile, has been all over the place, and so it makes sense to move him away from a volatile fastball towards a more stable and predictable repertoire.
Of course, what sets Paxton and Sevy’s fastballs apart from the rest of baseball, and generates such high pitch values, is velocity. They’re two of the hardest throwing starting pitchers in baseball, and especially when you compare them to the rest of the Yankee starting staff:
The single biggest contributor to run prevention is velocity because it’s the only trait of a pitch that reduces a hitter’s margin for error. You just have less time to react to a ball going 99 mph than you do 93 mph, and when you have a pitcher - or two - that can touch 99 with ease, it makes the most sense to just leave them alone. Neither Gray, Masahiro Tanaka or CC Sabathia have fastballs anywhere close to what Severino and Paxton present, and that’s been reflected in their usage:
What makes me convinced that the Yankees will leave Paxton’s process alone is the team’s behavior in 2018. Severino really struggled in the second half of the season, and whether the reason was pitch tipping or fatigue or what have you, it would have been very easy for the Yankees to ask Severino to buy into an anti-fastball approach. They could very well have come up to him and said “hey, you’re struggling right now, let’s try something new”:
They didn’t, though. Severino’s FB rate stayed constant all year, and even at the end of the year when you would expect the organization to have sat him down and tried to get some anti-fastball buy-in, his usage was identical to April and May, when he was the best pitcher in baseball. The Yankees had the opportunity to tinker with a great fastball pitcher and decided not to.
There’s also how the Yankees handled trade deadline pickup J.A. Happ, who rebuilt his career around the use of the fastball up in the zone. In fact, other than the difference in velocity, Happ and Paxton have a lot in common:
Look in particular at how both pitchers use their fastball up in the zone, and then move their primary breaking pitch - Happ’s slider and Paxton’s curve - down and in on righties. They also both throw a secondary fastball, a sinker and cutter respectively, lower in the zone to offset so many fastballs high. This is a pretty classic approach to pitching, forcing batters to change their eye levels and keeping right-handed hitters from crowding the plate.
Both Happ and Paxton have similar repertoires and approaches, Paxton just has a better fastball. When Happ was acquired, the Yankees recognized how good Happ’s heater was, and allowed him to pitch the way he always has:
After joining the Yankees, Happ’s fastball usage actually went up!
The anti-fastball approach of the Yankees, I think, comes from a recognition that 60% of their rotation didn’t have great fastballs and more importantly boasted much better secondary pitches. If Sabathia didn’t abandon his four-seamer for his cutter, he probably would be out of baseball, and we’ve all seen how downright pornographic Tanaka’s splitter can be when it’s on.
For Severino and Happ, their best pitch is their fastball, and the Yankees have mostly let them work off it. This is great news for the newest Yankee pitcher, who also boasts a top-level fastball. James Paxton should be left well enough alone in 2019.