It wasn’t long ago that the Yankees were the face of the no-fastball pitching trend now widespread through MLB. Sure enough, the Bombers’ pitching corps had the lowest fastball rate (47.4%) of any team in 2018. This approach was even more pronounced in their rotation, as the Yankees’ starters opted for the heater just 41.3% of the time overall, more than 12 percentage points below the MLB average.
However, the 2019 Yankees rotation projects to buck this trend. Simply by virtue of re-signing J.A. Happ and welcoming James Paxton, the Yankees’ starting pitching as a whole should experience a significant uptick in fastball rate.
First, let’s look at Paxton, who has been the Yankees’ biggest offseason addition to date. The Big Maple ran a 63.8% fastball rate in 2018, compared to a 65.3% career mark, so it’s safe to say that he doesn’t shy away from his heat. He has good reason for doing so, as his fastball averaged 95.4 mph and was worth 11.6 runs above average last year, per FanGraphs. Based on his results, it’s hard to see an argument for Paxton to significantly alter his pitch mix; if it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Happ, the more familiar of the two, boasts an even higher fastball rate (73.4% in 2018, 68.7 career). His heater only averaged 92.0 mph in 2018, nowhere near Paxton’s velocity. Despite this, Happ’s fastball has been just as effective, perhaps due to its high spin rate. According to FanGraphs, the pitch was worth 14.5 runs above average in 2018.
What does the addition of these fastball-heavy hurlers mean for the Yankees’ no-fastball approach? Perhaps the no-fastball philosophy was never a set-in-stone thing. Sure, the Yankees’ starting rotation collectively ran a very low fastball rate, but that doesn’t mean Larry Rothschild was threatening to kidnap their pets if they threw one heater too many. Not every Yankee starter adopted the no-fastball approach, and the ones that did did so because it was the sensible thing to do.
For example, Luis Severino threw his blazing fastball just over 50% of the time in 2018, and while that ratio is indeed below average, it’s nothing to be shocked by. Meanwhile, for Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia, both pitchers with lackluster fastballs, leaning on secondary offerings was the obvious course of action. Sonny Gray seems like the only example of a guy who the Yankees actively tinkered with, and even that’s debatable.
The additions of Happ and Paxton, both hurlers who throw a lot of heaters with good reason, lend further credence to my point. If the Yankees were categorically opposed to relying heavily on the fastball, no way they would have sought out such pitchers. If we assume that the Yankees only prescribe pitching backwards to pitchers with bad or declining fastballs, and are largely content to leave pitchers with effective fastballs as is, then everything checks out. Here’s hoping that Paxton and Happ can hold down their rotation spots, and along with the rest of the staff, pitch the Yankees to a championship.