After investigating which Yankee owned the most devastating fastball in 2020, I’ve decided to turn my attention to the team’s collection of off-speed pitches. With a more tightly grouped field of competitors, I narrowed my selection to the five pitches most deserving of competing for a chance to earn the coveted honor of being named the Yankees’ best off-speed. With all due respect to Adam Ottavino’s slider, he hung that thing over the middle far too often to garner consideration for his performance in 2020. Better luck next year, Adam!
Jonathan Holder’s stuff is nice—his cutter and slider both display sharp break in the horizontal and vertical planes, respectively, but he can’t throw either consistently enough for strikes to merit consideration—an analysis proffered by Peter Brody in his recent post mortem.
As per another nugget dropped by the Kevin Pelton of PSA, Peter mentioned that Clarke Schmidt’s slurve could easily contend for my arbitrary award in future seasons, as it ranks second in average spin rate among all major league pitchers’ sliders.
I’d also like to shout out Erik Kratz’s knuckleball for being the single weirdest pitch thrown in baseball in 2020. If there’s an award for that somewhere, Kratz’s knuckler wins it in a landslide.
For the purposes of this article, I’ve decided to consider the sinker as an off-speed, since in terms of spin and movement, it’s effectively a fast changeup. And, because no sinker sniffed the effectiveness of the Yankees’ three best four-seamers, I wanted to give Zack Britton some recognition for being one of the few reliable Yankee bullpen arms in 2020.
#5. Jordan Montgomery’s Changeup
The fifth best off-speed pitch belonging to any Yankee in 2020 was Jordan Montgomery’s changeup. Though his overall stats this season were sub-stellar, the underlying numbers were quite a bit more impressive, especially towards the latter-part of the year. When facing lefties he used his curve to offset his fastball, whereas he leaned on the change as hard as he could against righties, throwing it at least as often as the fastball. All year, batters were befuddled by the pitch, posting a truly meager 79.7 mph average exit velocity against Monty’s changeups.
After getting the pitch to break more vertically and less horizontally than it had in years past, Monty’s changeup looked more like his fastball than ever, making it near-impossible for hitters to differentiate between the two. Since his fastball velocity is still limited, as is the efficacy of his other offspeeds, Jordan Montgomery will need to replicate the improvements he made to the change as well as add something else—perhaps the cutter he experimented with in 2020—if he wants to become the steady starter for the 2021 Yankees that the club likely hopes he can become.
Jordan Montgomery's Changeup is getting to Manny Machado pic.twitter.com/RCU5DFDU0g— Pitcher List (@PitcherList) May 29, 2017
#4. Deivi García’s Changeup
In just 34.1 innings over six regular season starts, Deivi García outperformed expectations set for the highly-touted prospect. He competed in every start, rarely walking batters (4.1 BB%) and striking them out at a league average rate. Though he was hit hard, and too often at that, his competitive spirit impressed Yankee fans as much as his solid to great stuff. Even better than his deceptively rising fastball and the pitch that was scouted as his best—his curveball—was Deivi’s changeup.
Though his curveball possesses the greater break, and aesthetically pleasing downward bite that makes scouts drool, it was the changeup that looked most like the fastball, and possessed his heater’s refracted break. Instead of appearing to drift upwards and to Deivi’s arm-side, his changeup’s worse than average vertical break actually helped it look more like his fastball, despite being ten miles per hour slower. This is where I am contractually obligated to remind you that he’s only 21! If he’s to lock down a spot in the rotation as soon as next season, he’ll need to add some juice to his fastball, which will keep hitters more honest, and allow his curveball to be the truly elite saucer it has the break to be. Along with the time, build, and drive to improve, Deivi García already had the Yankees’ most effective changeup in 2020.
#3. Zack Britton’s Sinker
One of baseball’s marquee offerings is Zack Britton’s one-two sinker-slider combo. He’s been dicing batters for a decade-strong, and he’s shown no signs of slowing up. After posting two of his three best seasons by ERA over his first two full wearing pinstripes, he’s established himself as perhaps the Yankees’ most reliable bullpen arm. The front-end of his mirrored-breaking pitches is his sinker. Though the slider is what keeps hitters guessing, the sinker is the pack-mule that bears the load, as Britton threw it 80.3% of the time in 2020.
By peppering the bottom third of the zone and below with a bevy of sinkers, Britton avoids trouble over the heart of the plate and induces tons of terrible contact. When facing Zack Britton, batters know where the pitch is coming and which way it will likely move, but still struggle to do anything with his sinker. He struck batters out with his sinker less frequently than any of the other pitchers’ put-away pitches on this list, but batters could scarcely muster more than an infield grounder, leading to .207 batting and .276 slugging marks against the pitch.
#2. Gerrit Cole’s Knucklecurve AND #1. Gerrit Cole’s Slider
Possessing the Yankees’ two greatest offspeed pitches of 2020 is their golden goose, the golden boy, the bazillion dollar man himself—Gerrit Cole. With solid diagonal break on the curve, and devastating horizontal movement on the slider, it’s impossible to talk about these two pitches without addressing the ways that they complement each other, as well as Cole’s already elite fastball (the Yankees’ third best according to my extremely official and scientific index).
Not only does each breaker function as an excellent pitch to finish off batters, Cole is comfortable throwing them for strikes in any pitcher’s count in combination with his change—nearly as often as he does the fastball. While he likes to sneak the curve in for a cheeky strike to start batters off, he prefers to punch batters out with the slider, as it looks more like his fastball out of the hand. Though when he goes against his preferences, he gets even more dastardly results with the curve, generating whiffs on nearly half the swings against the pitch, and striking out batters almost a third of the time when he deals one on two-strikes.
The slider, however, earns the number one slot on my list by sheer volume, as Cole threw it almost 50% more often than he did his curve in total, while still generating a nearly identical, preposterously high whiff-rate. Though none of Gerrit Cole’s pitches are demonstrably the best in their class, his unparalleled package has been worth the lofty price of admission.