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What the Yankees look for in a starting pitcher

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Pitch usage and performance stats can help us figure out which free agent starter could land in New York.

League Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

After a long baseball season, there is nothing better than playing around with numerous stats to see what sticks. Usually I’ll find the expected names at the top of my searches, and sometimes a few surprising players pop up, forcing me to keep a close eye on for next season.

With a robust starting pitching market available this offseason, I wanted to see what pitches hitters are struggling against the most, how the Yankees compare to these results, and what free agent starters best fit this paradigm.

The narrative around the Yankees’ organization has been that they want their starting pitchers to throw fewer fastballs, in effect incorporating breaking and offspeed pitches more often. That narrative holds some water, as over the last two seasons, the Yankees have placed at the bottom half of the league in fastball percentage.

In 2018 the staff placed 24th with 55.4%, and in 2019 they placed 18th with 57.3%. The interesting part is as the Yankees’ fastball percentage increased by two percent for 2019, the entire league dropped its percentage about two percent, from 60.15% to 58.35%. A quick analysis shows that full seasons from James Paxton and J.A. Happ had a lot to do with this.

2019 pitch type results

Pitch Type BA ISO Average EV Pitch Usage
Pitch Type BA ISO Average EV Pitch Usage
Fastball 0.274 0.201 89.2 58.30%
Breaking 0.220 0.159 86.8 28.50%
Offspeed 0.230 0.154 85.7 12.40%
732,474 total pitches thrown in 2019 Statcast

Why do the Yankees stay under the league average of fastballs thrown, and why has that average itself dropped? Fastballs simply find more holes in a defense and get hit the hardest of the three pitch types. Additionally, fastballs are also the pitch that accumulated the lowest swing-and-miss percentage at 9.5%, while breaking pitches produced 15.5% and offspeed pitches 16.1%.

The evidence against fastballs continues to pile up and even though the Yankees brought in two fastball-dependent pitchers last offseason in Paxton and Happ.

BrooksBaseball

Paxton turned around his season after he dropped his fourseam and sinker usage in exchange for more curveballs. Happ, unfortunately, struggled all season with his fastball production. The Yankees were able to use their philosophy to fix one of their offseason acquisitions, though, helping drive their point even further as hitters couldn’t figure Paxton out.

The two starting pitchers on the Yankees that resemble this pitching philosophy the most are Masahiro Tanaka and Domingo German. Out of all pitchers with more than 750 fastballs thrown in 2019, Tanaka accumulated the lowest fastball percentage of all at 33.1%, and German placed seventh with 42.5%. Considering Tanaka has been with the Yankees his whole MLB career, and German spent multiple seasons in the organization, this philosophy is easier to find in them rather than pitchers acquired from other teams.

With free agency just a few days away, the Yankees will have plenty of work on their hands choosing which pitchers could be molded into their philosophy like Paxton or pitchers who will fit right in. A pitcher’s breaking ball and offspeed success will prove to be a factor in determining which free agents land in New York, but that not to say fastball success isn’t welcomed. Therefore, looking into pitchers who have this success with non-fastball pitches could give us some insight on who might be arriving to the Bronx soon. It’s never to early to start looking into next season and like Aaron Boone said: “We already have.”