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The Yankees have taken an extreme approach to fastball usage

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It hasn’t even been a week, but so far, the Yankees have utilized a radical strategy when it comes to fastballs.

New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Baseball is in an age of velocity. The average starter throws harder than ever. Luis Severino, Noah Syndergaard, and now Shohei Ohtani can all sit 98 mph on their fastballs. Flame-throwing relievers are now a dime-a-dozen, with every team trotting out bullpens featuring multiple pitchers capable of approaching triple digits on the radar gun.

Yet even with velocities themselves skyrocketing, we may also be living in the era when the fastball dies, or at least sees its relevance fade. Home runs are flying at unprecedented rates, and while much of that has to do with the ball itself, some of it has to do with approach. Players now want to aim for the skies, are less reticence to swing and miss, and thus are swinging hard and sitting dead-red on heaters.

That leaves some incentive for pitchers to curtail their fastball usage. Matt already looked at Masahiro Tanaka and his apparent distaste for his own four-seamer in his first start. Tanaka, armed with impressive secondaries but an unimpressive fastball, has every reason to “pitch backwards”, or with an emphasis on his breaking and offspeed pitches rather than on his heater.

The tendency to pitch backwards goes beyond Tanaka, though. In fact, per FanGraphs, the Yankees used fastballs at the lowest rate in the league in 2017, by some distance. The Yankees used fastballs 44.9% of the time, while the 29th-ranked Indians used 48.3% fastballs. The league-leading Pirates posted a rate of nearly 63%.

The Yankees clearly made staying away from the fastball part of their strategy last year, and that was nothing new: They’ve ranked in the bottom-five in fastball usage every year since 2013. The strategy makes plenty of sense, as according to FanGraphs’ pitch values, only eight teams derived better than average value from their fastballs in 2017. Notably, the Yankees were among those teams.

It’s obviously still early, and too soon to draw definitive conclusions, but after a turn through the rotation, it looks like the Yankees could be taking their strategy to another extreme. After just four starts, Yankees starting pitchers have used fastballs a minuscule 27% of the time. That’s dead last by a mile, with the Rangers the next closest team at 47%. The Yankee relievers, equipped with elite fastballs almost across the board, still rank only 24th so far, at 51%.

This is worth dialing in a bit deeper. Here’s the rate at which each of the Yankees starters threw fastballs in his first start, compared with his rate from the 2017 season:

Yankees’ Fastball Usage

Player 2018 FB% 2017 FB % Change
Player 2018 FB% 2017 FB % Change
Luis Severino 45.1% 51.4% -6.3%
Sonny Gray 24.7% 55.6% -30.9%
Masahiro Tanaka 22.8% 27.6% -4.8%
CC Sabathia 13.1% 23.5% -10.4%

The Yankees starting pitchers have reduced their fastball usage across the board in their first starts. For Tanaka and CC Sabathia, this was nothing new. Tanaka has always had a weak fastball, and has made adjustments to his approach since coming over to MLB. Sabathia, of course, has lost plenty of velocity since his prime, and has admirably remade himself as a command pitcher who relies on his secondaries to keep hitters off balance.

It’s more surprising that players like Severino and Sonny Gray stay away from their fastballs. Both are in their prime and throw hard, especially so in Severino’s case. That Severino, who just might have an 80-grade fastball in every sense of the term, may use his other offerings a majority of the time says something about how the Yankees plan to attack opposing batters.

Again, this strategy isn’t new, and it’s so early that the Yankees’ fastball usage should move towards the mean at least a little bit as the season progresses. But these initial starts have been eye-opening in what they could signal about the Yankees’ intentions. A staff that uses its fastballs under a third of the time is unheard of, but that’s how the Yankees have started off. It will be fascinating to monitor just how extreme the Yankees get this year with their focus on secondaries, and to what extent the strategy will flummox their opponents.