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The new pitch defining the Yankees’ bullpen

In the Bronx, sinkers are rising.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees - Game Two Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

The Yankees’ relief staff didn’t exactly get off on the right foot in 2019. Dellin Betances has yet to throw a pitch this season, and Chad Green still hasn’t been as effective as in previous years. Those are just a few examples of the many early-season pitfalls.

Before the season started this group was supposed to be one of the best bullpens of all time. Right now it does rank as the best bullpen in the majors, but that is pretty short of greatest of all time. Luckily, after a shaky start, the six most frequently used Yankees relievers have started to figure it out. Three of the six in Adam Ottavino, Aroldis Chapman, and Tommy Kahnle have a sub-two ERA.

The re-signing of Britton and the acquisition of Ottavino not only led to high expectations, but also changed the complexion of the team’s bullpen. They brought with them a new pitch, the sinker. According to FanGraphs, just as recently as 2017 the Yankees’ bullpen only threw the sinker 1.8% of the time, compared to 19.4% this season.

Britton throws it at a robust rate of 89.9%, while Ottavino throws it 40.2% of the time. They have been the biggest culprits in lifting the sinker rate, but two other Yankees relievers have joined them as well. Aroldis Chapman is throwing it more frequently, as he initially started using it last season, and Luis Cessa has been throwing it for the first time in his career.

Sinker usage and results

Pitcher Usage % XBA XSLG Average Exit Velocity Average Launch Angle
Pitcher Usage % XBA XSLG Average Exit Velocity Average Launch Angle
Zack Britton 89.9 0.194 0.292 87.8 -8
Adam Ottavino 40.2 0.130 0.173 77.5 4
Aroldis Chapman 10.1 0.060 0.200 85.5 19
Luis Cessa 10.7 0.267 0.378 93.8 -12

The Yankees made a decision to add two of the best relievers in the game this offseason, both signed till 2021. That means this trend isn’t going to leave anytime soon. With the low expected batting averages against the pitch, fans shouldn’t want to see it leave either. Now the team didn’t make a decision to add a new pitch in the bullpen’s repertoire, but rather just to add top relief talent who just happen to throw sinkers. Either way, the pitch is working out.

Furthermore, after diving into what Chapman has been doing while using the sinker, it’s incredible to imagine if he uncovered a new weapon. According to Statcast, Chapman’s sinking fastball has an average of 99.3 mph, which is actually a higher average velocity than his fourseam fastball at 97.6 mph. His .060 expected batting average with the sinker is also impressive.

What I found most glaring is that Chapman not only has the highest average spin rate on the Yankees with his sinker, but he has the highest spin rate in all the majors. He has thrown it just 33 times this season, specifically to right-handed hitters, but he might want to explore using it more often.

Chapman has been known as a two-pitch pitcher who uses a fourseam fastball and slider exclusively. An introduction of a third pitch could make an already dominant closer for the Yankees even better. The 10.1% usage is a small start, but it’s worth following.