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How Yankee hitters perform against breaking balls

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Find out which Yankees are the best (and worst) against curveballs and sliders

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees already know their opponent in the American League Division Series: they will go against the Minnesota Twins in what is shaping up as a slugfest of epic proportions.

Both teams have hit their fair share of dingers, and if the regular season provides any indication of things to come, the first round of the MLB Playoffs will be more of the same.

The Bombers have had lots of offensive stars in a somewhat atypical season. Despite losing Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, Gary Sanchez, and other reputed home-run hitters for large portions of the year, they have hit taters at a record-setting pace.

The Yankees have hit every pitch on the book. As mentioned yesterday, they have had their way against fastballs, which isn’t uncommon at all, but they have also managed to do some damage against the dreaded breaking balls.

In fact, the Yankees rank fifth in the big leagues in runs above average against sliders, with 4.5. However, that mark trails that of the Twins (5.1) and Astros (38.2). Against curveballs, the Yankees are in sixth place in FanGraphs’ Pitch Value ranking with 8.6 runs above average, once again trailing the Twins (18.9) and Astros (23.9.)

The Yankees that have fared best against curveballs and sliders are in the following table:

Yankees’ best hitters against CB/SL

Batter BA vs. CB/SL xBA vs. CB/SL wOBA vs.CB/SL xwOBA vsCB/SL Whiff% vsCB/SL SLG vs. CB/SL xSLG vs.CB/SL
Batter BA vs. CB/SL xBA vs. CB/SL wOBA vs.CB/SL xwOBA vsCB/SL Whiff% vsCB/SL SLG vs. CB/SL xSLG vs.CB/SL
G. Stanton 364 314 457 423 40.0 682 640
A. Judge 189 221 325 361 52.7 425 481
E. Encarnación 221 255 315 360 31.8 427 481
DJ LeMahieu 320 301 362 358 22.4 512 509
A. Romine 276 278 305 324 23.7 408 450
L. Voit 224 214 322 321 46.4 441 434

The best Yankees hitter against curveballs and sliders has been Giancarlo Stanton, although the sample size for the 2019 season is ridiculously small. Of the hitters with more at-bats to provide a better assessment, Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu, and Edwin Encarnacion stand out.

The chosen tool to measure effectiveness against a pitch, in this case, is expected on-base average, or xwOBA. It helps remove defense and ballpark from the equation and focuses on exit velocity and launch angle, while also adding walks and strikeouts to get an idea of a player’s contribution.

Stanton’s .423 xwOBA against breaking stuff is eye-popping, and so is his .640 expected slugging mark. For him, though, the primary challenge will be maintaining something remotely close to that level of production come postseason play. Fans still have memories of Stanton swinging and missing against sliders low and away in last year’s playoffs.

Judge is especially prone at whiffing against breaking balls, as evidenced by his 52.7 strikeout rate against them. He does damage when he connects, though, as shown by his .361 xwOBA mark. LeMahieu and Encarnacion have had success against every pitch type this season, so their presence in the list isn’t surprising at all.

Some of the stars of the team, however, have shown a vulnerability to breaking and offspeed stuff, which isn’t surprising given that they are significantly harder to hit. Curveballs and sliders are more physically demanding than fastballs, and they are more difficult to locate, as well. But boy, they can be effective.

Yankees’ worst hitters vs. CB/SL

Batter BA vs. CB/SL xBA vs. CB/SL wOBA vs.CB/SL xwOBA vsCB/SL Whiff% vsCB/SL SLG vs. CB/SL xSLG vs.CB/SL
Batter BA vs. CB/SL xBA vs. CB/SL wOBA vs.CB/SL xwOBA vsCB/SL Whiff% vsCB/SL SLG vs. CB/SL xSLG vs.CB/SL
A. Hicks 125 116 204 202 41.1 150 158
K. Higashioka 211 137 267 207 38.1 474 296
C. Maybin 242 186 285 232 39.4 371 285
T. Wade 241 227 255 265 36.4 276 318
C. Frazier 243 217 305 267 42.9 486 389
M. Ford 83 209 186 273 38.8 194 284
G. Torres 261 235 310 276 32.3 443 360
B. Gardner 189 245 234 279 19.5 280 325

Among the notable Yankees that have struggled to successfully hit curveballs, sliders, and knuckleballs in 2019 are Cameron Maybin (.232 xwOBA) Gleyber Torres (.276 xwOBA) and Brett Gardner (.279 xwOBA.)

This could provide a blueprint for opposing pitchers with good breaking balls to attack them with junk early and often: José Berrios of the Twins and the Astros’ trio of Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke, and Gerrit Cole are good examples.

The Twins’ rotation, besides Berrios, is completed by Kyle Gibson, Jake Odorizzi, and Martín Pérez. Gibson has a very good slider (+8 runs above average) that is sure to confound some Yankees hitters. Odorizzi has a fastball-heavy approach that includes four-seamers, cutters, sinkers, and splitters, but few breaking balls. Pérez has faded considerably since a strong first half.

Minnesota has two very interesting arms for the late innings: Tyler Duffey and Taylor Rodgers. The former has a 2.22 ERA and 2.91 FIP in 56.2 innings, while the latter is the ace of the bullpen, with 68 appearances of 2.65 ERA (2.84 FIP) ball.

Rogers can get whiffs with both his curveball (34.2 whiff%) and slider (35.2 whiff%). Both are effective, as batters are hitting .156 against the former and .213 versus the latter. In short, the Yankees wouldn’t want to face him while being trailing in the late innings.