This was always going to be a make-or-break year for Luis Cessa. After exhausting his final minor league option during the 2018 season, he could no longer be the Yankees’ up-and-down spot starter/long reliever. Cessa had to make the big league team out of spring training or risk being exposed to waivers.
During the offseason, many, including myself, thought the easiest way for Cessa to stick in the big leagues was to try finding a home in the Yankee bullpen, and it happens he’s done just that. With an approach to the game distinctly different than in years’ past, Cessa looks like he’s finally taken the next step to becoming a full-time big leaguer and a solid reliever to boot.
Over the past few seasons, the Yankees developed a reputation for being an anti-fastball team. On a team level, that might be changing, but Luis Cessa’s embrace of the anti-fastball philosophy is a driving force for his 2019 success. As recently as last season, Cessa threw his four-seam fastball about 40% of the time, but this season, he’s diminished his usage of the pitch to about 27% of the time.
Instead of fastballs, Cessa has turned to pitches with more movement. As Freeni Aragones pointed out a few weeks ago, Cessa’s slider has steadily improved each year, and he’s leaned on it more than ever in 2019. He throws a slider nearly 54% of the time, which is more than a ten-point increase from 2018. Additionally, Cessa introduced a sinker into his arsenal, which he throws about 14% of the time.
Not only is Cessa coming at hitters with a slightly different repertoire, but he’s attacking hitters in a seemingly more methodical way. He throws his fastball and sinker primarily to his arm-side -- inside on righties, outside to lefties. In previous seasons, Cessa didn’t always look to one general spot in the strike zone to throw. His 2018 fastball heatmap shows he threw it all over.
There’s not any concrete evidence I could find that points to why Cessa has thrown more fastballs and sinkers to one side of the plate, but I might speculate it has to do with tunneled sequencing. If Cessa can throw two different pitches to more or less the same side of the plate, hitters will have a harder time correctly identifying the pitch, anticipating its movement, and will, therefore, have a harder time hitting it.
As far as slider command and location go, Cessa is more or less throwing the pitch in the same general region -- down and away to right-handed hitters. If anything, Cessa locates the pitch much better now than previously. He’s not getting hitters to chase more often than in past years, but hitters aren’t making nearly the same amount of contact as they historically have. Prior to Wednesday’s appearance, Cessa’s O-Contact% (contact made on pitches outside the strike zone) was 36.6%, a drastic drop from last year’s 61.1% mark.
A further look at Cessa’s batted ball profile shows this new repertoire is working successfully. Hitters just aren’t squaring him up like they used to. Opposing hitters are hitting .240 and slugging .440, which admittedly, aren’t fantastic numbers, but it appears bad luck might be inflating them. Cessa’s xBA (expected batting average) is .159, and his xSLG is .266 according to Statcast, both elite marks.
Granted, the back of Cessa’s baseball card doesn’t look great right now. His clunker in San Francisco really inflated his ERA and homer rates. Plus, Cessa hasn’t exactly kept his walk rates in check this year. Still, we’re looking at a brand new Luis Cessa this season. He’s utilizing his pitches much more effectively, and we just might be witnessing the emergence of another really good Yankee reliever.