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The Yankees aren’t really an anti-fastball team

They’ve acquired a reputation for avoiding the hard stuff, but their true philosophy is more nuanced than that.

Divisional Round - Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The Yankees have paced MLB’s shift away from the fastball. Right? Over the past few years, we’ve seen pitchers leaguewide move away from the fastball as their main weapon, or at least, reduce their dependence on it. This has led to Cy Young-caliber seasons, such as the 2018 campaigns from Patrick Corbin and Chris Sale, who both threw their sliders more than 30% of the time in 2018, and has likely contributed to the game’s rise in strikeouts.

And the Yankees have been the most stingy fastball throwers in either league. They’ve finished 30th in the league the last three seasons in terms of fastball rate. I think this is less an anti-fastball approach, though, and perhaps something entirely unrelated.

This shows a negative relationship between swinging strikes and overall fastball use. The coefficient is -0.52, and shows that “establishing the fastball” really isn’t as necessary as conventional wisdom would imply. It’s not important to throw your fastball more, it’s important to throw the pitches that will induce the least amount of contact more.

To that point, let’s look at a pitcher that doesn’t fit the Yankees’ mold, or at least the mold we think exists. J.A. Happ has made his living working up and in with fastballs, and when he moved to the Yankees, well, see for yourself:

Happ actually threw more fastballs when he came to New York. This doesn't square with the idea that the Yankees are purely anti-fastball. However, if we concede the Yankees are pro-best-pitch, it makes all the sense in the world. Let’s take a look at his Pitch Values from FanGraphs.

Essentially, Pitch Values measures the run value - or preventative value - of a given pitch from a given pitcher. A score of zero is average, above is good, below is bad.

Happ’s fastball has consistently been his best pitch, and it’s not particularly close. The Yankees’ guiding philosophy of pro-best pitch picked up on that, and he threw more fastballs when he came to the Bronx.

It’s easy to see where the anti-fastball belief came from. Larry Rothschild had to effectively rebuild both Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia, who earlier in the decade were actual power pitchers, regularly surpassing 95 mph. Over the past few seasons, that velocity has fallen, and while velo isn’t everything, it does signal a decline in pitch quality.

As their fastballs declined, Tanaka began throwing his splitter and slider more, while Sabathia entered a career renaissance by using a cutter as his main pitch. Dellin Betances has famously become a pitcher who relies on his breaking ball more than anything else, and the re-acquisition of David Robertson in 2017, with his devastating cutter/curveball combination, only propagated a narrative that the Yankees were anti-fastball.

That narrative doesn’t hold up when you look at how the Yankees behaved on the market in the offseason. Warren Buffet once said “writing a check separates a commitment from a conversation”, and the Yankees are clearly not committed to an anti-fastball philosophy.

James Paxton was the team's biggest acquisition this winter, and has made his name on his impressive fastball high in the zone. Of the three relievers most aggressively pursued by the Yankees - Robertson, Adam Ottavino and Zach Britton - they signed two, and gave the most money to Britton, who throws a ludicrous percentage of sinking fastballs, almost disregarding offspeed and breaking pitches entirely.

That financial signal shows that the Yankees aren’t completely anti-fastball, and they’re not trying to stick to a one-size-fits-all strategy. Rather, they’re adapting and optimizing a pitcher’s best existing offering, and that makes most pitchers that much more dangerous.