Fans would be forgiven if they haven’t thought too hard about Luis Cessa lately. The rest of the pitching staff has made a lot of news this spring, first with Gerrit Cole’s debut, then with the loss of James Paxton and Luis Severino, and finally with the scramble to find placeholders among the team’s stable of promising young pitchers.
And while Cessa has often been forgettable in pinstripes, he also made a thankless long relief role his own last season. In 2019, he jumped to 81 innings pitched, up from 44.2 in 2018, best on the Yankees and ninth in all of baseball. He logged 31 multiple-inning appearances, and mopped up 54 low-leverage innings according to FanGraphs. It was a dirty job, and Cessa did it well enough to earn his place.
2019 Statistics: 81 IP, 4.11 ERA, 4.87 FIP, 8.33 K/9, 1.31 WHIP, 0.1 fWAR
2020 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 40 IP, 4.66 ERA, 4.76 FIP, 8.42 K/9, 1.36 WHIP, 0.0 fWAR
This past Wednesday’s excellent spring performance aside, Cessa has long been a source of frustration for many Yankees fans. But there’s room for improvement, and plenty of reasons to root for it.
He turns 28 this April, he’s out of minor league options, and there’s real value in a pitcher who can absorb a heavy bullpen workload — especially in 2020, when the Yankees will search for ways to preserve the arms of their high-leverage relievers.
So how can Cessa get better? Lefties knocked him around last season, dinging him for 16 earned runs and a 1.48 WHIP in 31.2 innings. It’s an important challenge for him to overcome — if he continues as a middle reliever, he’ll be required to work through lineups regardless of the favorability of match-ups.
One answer might lie in his pitch mix. To righties, Cessa primarily threw a slider and a four-seamer last season, though he also introduced a sinking two-seamer. The slider was nasty, generating a .284 wOBA and a robust whiff rate of 40.7% from batters who offered at it. Cessa committed to the pitch in 2019, throwing it more than twice as often as his fastball against righties, and 49.9% of the time overall.
Against lefties, Cessa reduced his reliance on the slider, throwing it less frequently than he did the four-seamer. Instead he periodically complemented the four-seamer with a changeup that drops away from the hitter, and to good effect. Opponents registered a meager .305 wOBA and a 24% whiff rate against it.
Unfortunately, Cessa’s use of the changeup has declined over time, even taking a back seat to the sinker in 2019. If he can restore the changeup to its previous prominence in his pitch mix, it might help cure his lefty blues.
Back in 2017, when he used the changeup much more often, he ceded just 2 earned runs against lefties, though they came in only 16.2 innings pitched, so extrapolate at your own peril.
Other Yankees pitchers have found success by emphasizing offspeed stuff. Tommy Kahnle, for example, has ramped up his reliance on the change since joining the Yankees in 2017 — he now throws it for more than half his pitches — and the organization in general has a reputation for encouraging their staff to dial back the frequency of their fastballs.
And if Cessa does improve against lefties, he might even be up to the task of taking on higher-leverage situations, if needed. The sample sizes are again dangerously small, but some metrics like Cessa’s WHIP, FIP, and wOBA actually got better in medium-to-high-leverage spots last season. If he were to make tangible progress against lefties, he’d become something of a weapon for the Yankees.
That would certainly be the rosiest scenario. Maybe Cessa is who he is, and a marginal tweak to his pitch mix won’t reinvent him. But “who he is” does have utility, and it’s won him an opportunity to give Yankees fans something to talk about this season.