Last week, I detailed the top three active hitters against the Yankees since 2017. These were players who you dreaded to see step to the plate, as it seemed they always delivered the goods. In a continuation of that investigation, I would now like to look at the players who elicit a similar reaction, but this time on the other side of the ball.
Whenever I saw one of the following three starters’ names pencilled into the schedule, I knew it would be a frustrating afternoon for Yankees hitters. Whether this was because of their raw pitching talent or were seemingly charmed against the Yankees, the Bombers would be hard-pressed to squeeze out a victory in that outing. That being said, they have all exhibited a vulnerability of late, one that the Yankees would need to jump on to maximize chances of success.
The following three players are evaluated in terms of their FIP against the Yankees. While there are plenty of metrics that do an adequate job of measuring pitching performance, I feel the FIP is a fitting combination of capturing the pitcher’s individual contribution in an easy-to-understand format. I also set the minimum innings limit to 20 to approximate about four starts against the Yankees in the last three years.
Justin Verlander - 2.79 FIP in 27.2 innings pitched
It should surprise nobody that the righty fireballer is at the top of this list. He is arguably the most dominant pitcher of the past decade, and seems to especially turn it up whenever he faces the Yankees. Since 2017, he has started four games against New York, with the Bombers only batting .190/.236/.290 while striking out 34 times. He also had the second-highest K-BB% in the league at an absurd 30.5%.
So what’s the secret to hitting him you might ask? Well... if I had the answer to that, they’d be paying me a million bucks. However, the reigning Cy Young winner did show some hints of mortality this past season. He had the twelfth-highest home run per nine rate in the majors at 1.45. This could be due to the fact that he saw his hard-hit percentage jump from 29.1% in 2018 to 41.8% in 2019.
When you combine these trends with the fact that hitters perform best against his fastball and have “better” outcomes when taking the first pitch (61 OPS+ taking, 31 OPS+ swinging), a picture starts to emerge. Basically, by not swinging at the first pitch, and then hunting fastball with the intent to do damage, one can hope to at least have a fighting chance
Chris Sale - 3.40 FIP in 67.0 innings pitched
The lanky lefty has had a tale of two seasons performance against the Yankees since joining the Red Sox. Even with his abysmal record versus the Bombers last season, which we will get to in a second, he still sports the fourth-lowest FIP against the Yankees since 2017. He was near-unhittable during the 2017-2018 stretch, with a 2.11 ERA and 69 punchouts in 47.0 innings pitched. That ridiculous strikeout per nine rate of more than 13 brings me back to the dreaded dog days of 2017, when he fanned 12 and 13 Yankees in consecutive starts against them.
However, as I alluded to, Sale was a shell of his former self last season. This rung especially true with the Yankees, who owned him in all four of his starts against them. This was certainly down to the loss of velocity on his fastball, having lost almost two miles per hour from 2018 to 2019, however the night-and-day difference in performance by the Yankees is staggering. He gave up no less than four earned runs in each of those games, totaling a 9.90 ERA with six home runs and 28 hits surrendered in only 20 innings.
It appears the Yankees already have the blueprint for how to beat Sale. Namely, that is executing the fundamentals. Yankees batters saw about 4 pitches per at bat, and although they did not draw an inordinate amount of walks, they made Sale work to the point of eventually surrendering a hit. Not only did they get ducks on the pond, they did damage in those scoring opportunities.
It remains to be seen, however, if Tommy John surgery will further hamper his performance when he returns in 2021.
Homer Bailey - 3.41 FIP in 23.1 innings pitched
If you asked me a year ago who the best pitchers against the Yankees would be, Christian Bale’s doppelgänger would be pretty near the bottom of that list. However, since 2017 he is the fifth-stingiest pitcher against the Yankees and particularly in 2019 turned into the Dark Knight of Yankees pitching opponents. (No, really, he pitched like 2013 Matt Harvey against the Bombers last year.)
Bailey’s transformation has been rather unbelievable. He went from a guy who could touch triple digits to one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball with a bloated contract, to a career renaissance with the Royals and Athletics. Against the Yankees last season, he held a 2.08 ERA, 0.92 WHIP, 11.9 K/9 and 3.16 FIP in three starts and 17.1 innings pitched.
Nearly every aspect of Bailey’s game improved last season, so it was difficult to find any recent glaring flaws. The few things I did notice were a mildly high home run per nine rate and a moderately low soft contact percentage. I also noticed that batters perform far better against his breaking pitches (.311 average against the slider, .714 slugging against the curveball) than against his fastball and splitter, so it seems to me the strategy would be to hunt breaking ball and swing for the fences.
Nathan Eovaldi (2.59 FIP in 29.1 IP) and Chris Archer (2.88 FIP in 28.1 IP) also could have easily made this list, however it is unclear in which role Eovaldi will be utilized after bullpenning for the majority of last season. As for Archer, after moving from the division-rival Rays to the Pirates, he did not play against the Yankees last season and may not again in a shortened season this year.