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Tracking the Yankees’ change in pitching philosophy

The pitching staff has taken “McCullersing” to an extreme.

MLB: Miami Marlins at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a phrase, made popular in recent years by this Nature article, that scientific knowledge (the amount of total citations referenced is their exact metric) doubles every nine years or so. This follows an exponential trend where n references are created in any year, which increases in the following year, using the n number of references in the previous year(s) to create more references. This may be a very analytical way to view “knowledge,” but I think there are some applications for baseball here.

If we think of that n as observable events in baseball, we can say that knowledge in that same sense has been increasing according to a Moore’s-esque Law. In 1900, say, the standard unit of observation was the at-bat, and even that was dubious. As most exponential curves, there is slow growth at the bottom. Pitch trackers came out around 1987 with QuesTec, PitchF/X replaced it in 2006, followed by Statcast just a few years ago. Each subsequent innovation introduced more observable events—x/y location, spin rate, release point, exit velocity, etc. and etc.

This means that with each data point, just as the Nature piece says, more scientific research expounds on those data points. In this case, those researchers are a team’s quantitative analysts. This brings us to the rapid changes of modern baseball.

In the last decade, there has been a shift in hitting and pitching philosophies wholesale. As pitchers began to throw harder and harder, increasing velocity actually yielded diminishing returns. With the advent of a ball that is effectively juiced at its core, teams had to get creative about the placement of their fastballs. Here is what Ben Lindbergh had to say in a recent Ringer piece on the change in zone-rate:

“More and more frequently, [Dan] Haren explains, pitchers and teams are asking themselves the question, ‘Does a pitcher really have to establish his fastball?’ And more and more often, they’re answering in the negative... From the pitchers’ perspective, all of this makes sense. When batters swing at pitches outside the strike zone, they’re more likely to miss, and whiffs don’t do any damage. They’re also more likely to make weak contact... Maybe it’s working: The dingers and overall scoring have subsided so far this season amid pitchers’ continuing flight from the strike zone, although there are likely other forces at work.”

The Yankees have taken this existing trend and taken it to the extreme:

This has been smartly and funnily dubbed “McCullersing” by FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan, the strategy of pitching backwards to a high degree a la Lance McCullers Jr.. He noted this recently with Masahiro Tanaka:

“Barely 20% of Tanaka’s offerings have been hard pitches. In terms of single-game hard-pitch rate, Tanaka has achieved two of his three lowest career rates in his most recent two starts... Tanaka has the lowest hard-pitch rate by a full 12 percentage points. Even McCullers himself is at 36%.”

I’ve already written at length about Tanaka, the bullpen, and the team’s pitching struggles in general, but here is where all of this strategy comes into play. At a base level, the pitching doesn’t seem to be doing well. We intuitively know this. Based on these facts — that the Yankees are trying to counter a homer-happy league with higher velocity fastballs and more and more off-speed pitches — it also seems like an intuitively good strategy.

The trend, even from when last noted, has still continued. They have the lowest fastball rate by six percentage points, and they have the second-highest whiff rate and fourth-highest O-Swing% in the league. They are also third in overall strikeout rate. Yet, they are ninth in HR/FB% and they have a team 4.66 ERA, so these things are difficult to process in concert.

Suffice it to say that the pitching likely cannot, and will not, remain this poor. This is a deliberate strategy that the team has leaned further and further into, and it was successful in a 2017 when they were fifth in ERA- and also last in fastball rate. The Yankees are McCullersing, and the realization of its success will likely become clearer as the season progresses.