On Friday, I took a closer look at the current Yankees pitching philosophy. To sum it up, the Bombers don’t throw a lot of fastballs compared to other teams, and in 2019 fastballs were their worst pitch. Interestingly, last offseason the Yankees ended up with James Paxton and J.A. Happ, who are both fastball-dependent. The acquisition of these two pitchers shows what the team is trying to create and what they wish to avoid.
When Paxton began to struggle, the organization had him decrease his fourseam usage and throw more curveballs. Paxton won ten starts in a row and went undefeated in 11 consecutive games to end the season as his curveball percentage increased. In comparison, when Happ struggled throughout the season, we didn’t see a drop in fastball usage, rather just a different choice of fastballs—choosing his fourseam over his sinker. That’s because, unlike Paxton, he doesn’t have an overpowering pitch with a whiff rate over 30% that he can use to avoid bats.
As we look ahead to this year’s deep pool of quality starting pitchers on the free agency market, the Yankees should be on the lookout for pitchers with multiple breaking or offspeed weapons. Here are some possible free agent starters the Yankees could target.
Gibson doesn’t have multiple seasons of success to be regarded as one of the top tier pitchers in this market, but he could benefit from using his slider and changeup more. Since 2018, Gibson has generated a whiff rate of 50% on his slider, and a 40% mark over the last four years. It’s no doubt his best pitch as it has kept opponents under a .200 batting average the two previous seasons. The changeup isn’t too far behind, producing a 30% whiff rate throughout his career and an xBA under .210 in the same span. His primary pitch is his sinking fastball, however, a drop in his fourseam usage could help Gibson find better results.
Looking at what the Yankees did with Paxton provides a good base for Wheeler because there is no doubt Wheeler can throw hard as well. You don’t want to take away someone’s strength, but knowing that Wheeler has good results on his slider and curveball does show he might be able to age well during a multi-year contract. It’s difficult to find a pitcher who didn’t have a set back in 2019 because of the juiced ball, but for Wheeler his secondary pitches still impressed and have for a few years now. His curveball has been able to produce an xBA under .205 the last two seasons while his slider has stayed under .245 in the same span. That’s without mentioning Wheeler has shown the ability to throw a changeup and split finger as well. If you’re looking for weapons, he has plenty.
For starters, Ryu throws three different types of fastballs making it seem like he wouldn’t fit in the Yankees’ rotation. However, a plus changeup and curveball make it possible as both have been able to produce a batting average of .220 or lower the past two seasons. Ryu’s curveball generated a 40% whiff rate this season and his changeup came in second at about 30%. Consistently over his career his changeup-curveball combination has been about 40% of his usage, while the rest of the three fastballs complete the whole picture. Ryu wasn’t shy about making the changeup his most used pitch in 2019. The next step would be raising his curveball usage in an attempt to bring the combination over 50%.
Some honorable mentions are Dallas Keuchel and Madison Bumgarner, highlighting two veterans that absolutely have the capability of succeeding in New York. It could be interesting to see if Bumgarner ever decides to use his slider again. It was once an important pitch in his arsenal, but he hasn’t used it since 2016 per Statcast. Two pitchers who had success early in their career and could be projects after health concerns are Michael Wacha and Alex Wood. Nevertheless, there are a long list of options and any additions would help the team’s pitching depth.