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These five Yankees could benefit from a change

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Fewer fastballs over here, increased curveballs over there, and forget about that slider! It could work, depending on the pitcher

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Players used to make adjustments at a slower pace in the past than today. In our current game, pitchers adjust between batters or even during an at-bat, rather than game-to-game or season-to-season. Analytics and advanced metrics help inform us what is working and what is not. And if we have that information at hand, you can imagine that pitchers also do.

These five Yankees could benefit from altering the frequency with which they use certain pitches:

Jonathan Loaisiga

Right now, Loaisiga relies on three pitches according to Baseball Savant: a four-seam fastball (47.7 percent usage), a curveball (30.8 percent), a changeup (12.9 percent) and a sinker (8.6 percent).

His four-seamer has been tattooed for two seasons in a row; in 2018, it had an xwOBA of .423, and 2019 saw the number get even worse at .453. Batters are basically Mike Trout against Loaisiga’s four-seam fastball.

He needs to stop nibbling and attack hitters with the pitch, as Tom Krosnowski notes here. But lowering his four-seamer usage to the 40-percent range and increasing both his sinker (a more palatable .333 of xwOBA and 84.1 mph in average exit velocity) and his curveball (his best pitch, with a 45.8 whiff rate and a paltry .125 xwOBA) usage could benefit him.

Loaisiga’s changeup was good in 2018 but bad in 2019 (.383 xwOBA, although it still generates a lot of whiffs.) If he’s going to start, he will need it. If he’s going to relieve, he could lower its usage to favor the curveball even more.

Zack Britton

Britton used to be a pure sinkerballer who rarely threw a secondary pitch. From 2014 to 2018, he threw sinkers more than 90 percent of the time in each and every season.

The problem is that since 2017, his K-BB ratio was trending in the wrong direction. He wasn’t as dominant. In 2019, he decided to increase his slider usage and the results couldn’t have been better. For the season as a whole, Britton threw roughly 86.4 percent sinkers and 13.6 percent sliders.

In the second half, he upped his slider usage to 21.4 percent. The pitch held hitters to an absurd .033 average and a 61.0 percent whiff rate. Maybe, just maybe, it is time to bump its usage to somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 percent.

Jordan Montgomery

Since 2018 and 2019 were both abbreviated seasons, the best parameter to judge Jordan Montgomery would be 2017, his breakout season. That year, he threw sinkers 24.5 percent of the time and his four-seamer usage was 17.4 percent. That amounts to a total of 41.9 percent of fastballs.

Neither pitch was effective. Batters had a .398 xwOBA versus the four-seamer and a .393 mark against sinkers. Their whiff rates were 14.8 and 11.5, respectively. Thus, Montgomery should take advantage of the fact that he has three strong secondaries in his curveball, changeup and slider. All of those pitches were a net positive in 2017 - the slider was 2.5 runs above average, the changeup 8.3 and the curveball 10.4 - and the lefty should consider throwing less fast stuff.

In 2017, he threw 26.1 percent curves, 24.5 percent sinkers, 18.9 percent changeups, 17.4 percent four-seamers and 13.1 percent sliders. He shouldn’t get rid of his fastballs, but a slight decrease in favor of his breakers and offspeed offerings could help him re-capture his 2017 form and cement his place in the rotation.

J.A. Happ

Happ ran a 4.91 ERA (5.22 FIP) in 161.1 innings with the Yankees in 2019. He also registered 7.81 K/9 and a 2.73 BB/9 mark. He allowed 1.90 home runs per nine innings. The same pitcher had a 1.65 ERA (3.10 FIP) in 27.1 September innings. He had a 9.22 K/9 and a 2.96 BB/9 mark. He allowed just 0.66 HR/9.

What changed? As our own Joshua Diemert explains, he lowered the usage of the sinker and upped the frequency with which he used his four-seamer from 45 to 56 percent in the season’s final month.

The sinker wasn’t a bad pitch for him. It had a .312 xwOBA for the season: not elite but certainly useful. In fact, the sinker got better as the season went on and as Happ used it less. Sometimes, less is more.

If, for the 2020, he decides to rely heavily on his successful four-seamer and throw fewer sinkers, he could have better results in the season as a whole. If hitters don’t expect the sinker, Happ can mess with their timing and induce weak contact.

Tommy Kahnle

The 2017 season was a career year for Tommy Kahnle. In 62.2 innings, he had a 2.59 ERA and a 1.83 FIP, with a 13.79 K/9 and 2.44 BB/9. He did that while throwing a 98-mph fastball 66.5 percent of the time. He threw 11.6 percent sliders and 21.9 percent changeups.

That season, all three pitches were above average according to FanGraphs’ pitch values. The fastball was worth 8.5 runs above average, the slider 0.8 runs, and the changeup 3.8 runs.

His changeup is filthy, but if it is the most frequently used pitch in his arsenal, hitters will eventually adjust to it. Kahnle needs to regain his best fastball, and to do that, he needs to trust it more.

With that in mind, I’ll suggest an idea that might seem crazy. Even though Kahnle earned a 12.8 mark in pitch value with the offspeed pitch and a -2.4 with the fastball - with an average speed of 96.5 mph - how about increasing the fastball usage in the neighborhood of 55-60 percent? It would help if he regained his 2017 velocity, but even if he doesn’t, it could prevent hitters keying in on his changeup (he threw 51.9 pervent changeups last season, compared to 44.2 percent fastballs).

Trying to mix in the slider a little more - he only threw it 3.9 percent of the time in 2019 - could help, as well. It has been successful in the past. Of course, we are not talking about an unsuccessful hurler here: Kahnle had a 3.67 ERA in 61.1 frames, punching out 12.91 batters per nine innings. But he has a chance to be his 2017 self in 2020.

Kahnle’s fastball and slider are not the best. However, if hitters are expecting changeup, it can keep them honest. And, you know, hitting a 97 mph heater isn’t easy, after all.