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Why the Yankees’ pitching philosophy appears to have suddenly shifted

The Yankees developed a reputation as an anti-fastball team. What does it mean that they’ve apparently reversed course?

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Baseball constantly evolves, and on both sides of the ball. For hitters, finding optimal launch angles and swing planes is in en vogue, as is smashing dingers, among the other three true outcomes. Pitchers, on the other hand, throw harder than ever, yet use their increasingly-hard fastballs more and more sparingly. While average fastball velocity has crept up consistently over the past decade, pitchers have decided to rely more heavily on their secondaries.

The Yankees often embody these trends more than anyone. They’ve long accepted the three true outcomes, launching homers and taking walks at the price of a few strikeouts. They also have gained a reputation for adhering to an anti-fastball philosophy. They employ many of the game’s hardest throwers, but task them with using those fastballs rather infrequently.

For the most part, they’ve earned this reputation. Per FanGraphs, the Yankees ranked dead-last in fastball usage each of the past three seasons. They hadn’t ranked outside the bottom-three since 2012. By all accounts, the Yankees’ standing as the game’s preeminent fastball skeptics holds true.

That is, until 2019. For the first time in years, the Yankees are on track to use fastballs at a noticeable rate. Last year, according to FanGraphs’ pitch classifications, the Yankees used fastballs 47.4% of the time, more than a point lower than the 29th-place Mariners. This season, the Yankees have shot all the way up to 14th (14th!).

Now, part of that rapid rise stems from the fact that teams in general are still curtailing their fastball usage; the median team used fastballs 54.8% of the time last year, compared to 53.1% this year. Even so, the Yankees currently own a 54.1% fastball rate, nearly seven points above 2018. This was nearly inconceivable a mere 12 months ago.

Instructively, the Yankees aren’t using fastballs more than 16 teams because the pitchers they’ve had in-house are suddenly throwing more heaters. Domingo German, Luis Cessa, and Jonathan Loaisiga have hardly seen their fastball rates budge. Aroldis Chapman and CC Sabathia have used fastballs slightly less than last year. Masahiro Tanaka and Tommy Kahnle have used them a bit more.

No, the Yankees have thrown more fastballs simply because they have employed pitchers this season who have long made their money throwing fastballs. They added James Paxton in the offseason, and he owns a 63.6% fastball rate, nearly exactly the rate he posted in 2018. They stand to receive a full season from J.A. Happ, who has thrown over 70% fastballs. The same goes for Zack Britton, who continues to use his sinking fastball more than 90% of the time.

The Yankees’ fastball rate has shot up almost exclusively because they traded for pitchers, either at midseason 2018 or after the season, who rely on hard pitches. Perhaps you find this explanation underwhelming, but it suggests the Yankees make use of a more open-minded, and ultimately more effective, pitching philosophy than they’ve been given credit for.

I believe this provides more evidence for an idea Josh broached before the season; the Yankees aren’t actually anti-fastball, they simply want their pitchers to throw their best pitches. This is hardly a revolutionary idea, but it’s an intuitive one that appears to cut to the heart of the team’s fastball increase this year.

By FanGraphs’ pitch values, Happ’s fastball has been his most valuable pitch for each of the past six seasons. Ditto goes for Britton. Paxton’s fastballs have been his most valuable offering each of the past three years.

Instead of attempting to squeeze these fastball specialists into a one-size-fits-all anti-fastball strategy, the Yankees have allowed, and most likely encouraged, the trio to continue doing what makes them good. In fact, given the team’s ample investment in, and proclivity for, analytics and player development, the Yankees have probably gone to lengths to help their newer pitchers improve their best pitches.

Sonny Gray stands out as the one player that flies against this idea. Gray has spoken openly about how the Yankees’ philosophy didn’t jibe with him, and coincidentally or not, the right-hander has enjoyed a solid start to his time with Reds. Perhaps their sub-optimal handling of Gray helped spur the Yankees to more fully embrace a pitching strategy that’s less anti-fastball and more pro-throwing good pitches.

Either way, it’s clear what has driven the Yankees’ spike in fastball usage. They use more fastballs because they have more players that use fastballs. They no longer fit the profile as an anti-fastball team. To me, that they have shown little interest in curtailing the fastball usage of pitchers who have thrived with the heat suggests only positive things about the team’s overall approach to pitching. Time will tell if they will carry forward this strategy for the rest of the season.