The Yankees suffered through a bit of a rough patch in terms of pitching depth during the middle of 2018. You may have noticed! With Jordan Montgomery recovering from Tommy John surgery, Masahiro Tanaka dealing with a pair of strained hamstrings, and Sonny Gray immolating, the Yankees were forced to turn to inexperienced rookies throughout the summer.
For the most part, the experiment did not succeed. Two of the first arms up from the minors, Domingo German and Jonathan Loaisiga, showed promise but failed to limit runs at something resembling an effective rate. The team moved at the trade deadline to ultimately ensure that capable veterans like J.A. Happ and Lance Lynn shouldered the burden down the stretch.
As mentioned, though, both German and Loaisiga really did flash potential at times. Today, I want to return to German for a moment. Even as German was consistently turning in uneven start after uneven start last year, I couldn’t shake the idea that there was certainly a major-league caliber pitcher lurking underneath.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first; the numbers on the surface, important numbers to be sure, are not pretty. His 5.57 ERA equates to an ugly 129 ERA- (with ERA-, 100 is average and lower is better). Opposing batters overall hit .242/.317/.457, with the resulting .774 OPS rating 11 percent worse than league average.
Of course, we’re not here to discuss the unsightly surface figures. We’re here to discuss German’s potential, and after digging deeper to see how the component parts of his game stack up with his peers, I believe German still has plenty of it.
To get a sense for how German compares to his cohorts, I filtered FanGraphs’ leaderboards for pitchers that have tossed at least 100 innings over the course of 2017 and 2018 combined. It should be noted that with 14.1 innings in 2017 and 85.2 innings in 2018, German only just hits this arbitrarily-chosen (read: round number) threshold. German certainly isn’t working with a large sample size in the big leagues.
There have been 329 pitchers to toss at least 100 frames the past two years. German’s ERA- over that span ranks 292nd. His contemporaries in terms of run prevention are the likes of Marco Estrada and Miguel Gonzalez and Jeff Samardzija.
Beyond the ERA, however, is where German shines. German’s 10.8 K/9 rate is in the 90th-percentile of this sample. His walk rate isn’t great, but his K%-BB% figure of 17.9% is still in the 76th percentile. With strong strikeout-to-walk numbers, it’s no surprise that German’s FIP has been better than average since 2017.
Opposing hitters have whiffed on 14.3% of German’s pitches, which ranks in the 91st percentile. They’ve chased pitches out of the zone 34.7% of the time versus German, which ranks, you guessed it, in the 91st percentile. He’s posted a 69.5% contact rate, which ranks in the 92nd percentile. In other words, German has been among the best in the business at missing bats, both because he gets hitters to chase, and because he’s difficult to hit even when he pitches in the zone.
German also profiles excellently when simply evaluating the quality of his stuff. This time, I went to Baseball Savant, and filtered for pitchers who had thrown at least 500 pitches since 2017. German’s average fastball velocity of 94.9 mph ranked 133rd out of 620 pitchers in the sample. Even more encouragingly, the spin rate on his fastball of 2515 rpm ranked in the 97th percentile. Based purely on speed and spin rate, German’s fastball has an extremely similar look to the fastballs of Justin Verlander, Yu Darvish, and Max Scherzer.
Clearly, there’s more to being Verlander or Scherzer than simply having a great fastball. This just stands to show that the tools with which German is working with are strong. His curve and changeup, which aren’t as eye-popping when it comes to their speed or spin rates, do generate whiffs at an above average rate according to Brooks Baseball. The necessary components for a quality pitcher are here.
Surely, German will have to improve in plenty of other ways in order to take full advantage of his talents. He’s allowed an elevated home run rate, which may be impacted by luck, but also may be the result of poor command within the strike zone. German’s ERA was hurt by bad sequencing, which could just be noise, or an indication that German has trouble pitching with men on or in tight spots.
None of this is to say that German is slightly better command or a simple adjustment away from being an ace. It just seems clear that German has potential beyond what he has shown. Really, it might be clear to anyone that’s seen German’s best stuff in action:
It’s probably for the best that German isn’t included among the Yankees’ first five starters at the moment. Some time to refine the rougher edges of his game could do wonders for him. In the best-case scenario, by the time the Yankees need to call on German, he’ll be ready to make the most of his chance. Perhaps the Yankees will need him to make a spot start, or perhaps they’ll try to unlock his potential in the bullpen. Either way, German still stands as capable of making an impact for the Yankees.