It’s finally here! Baseball is upon us in this most improbable of seasons. The Yankees got off to a flying start last night behind an impressive outing from new staff ace Gerrit Cole and a monster performance from Giancarlo Stanton. It took months of disagreement and learning on the fly to cobble together the 2020 season. There will be endless changes to the Bombers and MLB as the league adapts to playing amid an ongoing pandemic. One that has already emerged in summer camp makes me even more excited for the return of Yankees baseball.
Spring training 2.0 gave us a glimpse of what to expect from the Yankees in this sprint season. Already several pleasant surprises have popped up in the weeks before Opening Day. Thairo Estrada is looking like the player the Yankees believed he could be. Chad Green is sporting a filthy new breaking ball. Clarke Schmidt appears to be the real deal. Perhaps most intriguing, Jordan Montgomery and Michael King have shown significant increases in their fastball velocities.
Before we get to the two hurlers, let’s take a brief look at the importance of velocity. Fastball velocity is the gold standard of major league pitchers. Per FanGraphs, the velocity of the league-average fastball has climbed from 89 miles per hour in 2002 to 93.1 miles per hour in 2019. The analytics bear out this trend. The quality of contact decreases as fastball velocity increases.
Returning to Montgomery and King, neither starter has ever been known as a power pitcher. In fact, already in their young careers, they have been pigeonholed into the finesse/precision/groundball stereotype because their fastball velocities hover around the 91-92 range. This notion will have to change after seeing the speeds both guys have dialed it up to in recent exhibition appearances.
Both pitchers’ fastball velocities are well up relative to their career averages. Montgomery sat between 92-94, routinely hitting 95 while King was a tick higher at 94-95, reaching 96 in most if not all at-bats. What is the source of this new gear each pitcher has found, and what are the implications for them and the rest of the staff going forward?
To answer the first question, we have to look back at the coaches the Yankees brought in over the last 12 months. Last July, the Yankees poached pitching instructor Sam Briend from Driveline Baseball to be their new Director of Pitching. Then in January, they brought Eric Cressey of Cressey Sports Performance onboard to be their Director of Player Health and Performance. For those who are unfamiliar with the two and the organizations they represented, there is enough to write multiple stories about either man, but I will limit this to what is relevant to the discussion about Monty and King’s fastballs.
Driveline Baseball is a pioneer facility in pitch tracking and analytically-driven instruction, and has been lauded by many MLB pitchers as the place to go add velocity. Cressey Sports Performance takes a holistic approach to player fitness, incorporating kinesiology into throwing programs to improve throwing velocity. It looks like the Yankees hired the two preeminent experts in their field when it comes to maximizing velocity, and both men have stamped their marks.
That the Yankees have already experienced positive results with the help of both men is an encouraging sign for the rest of the staff. The Yankees have a bevy of young arms knocking on the door of the majors, and each would be that much more effective with a zippier fastball. Deivi Garcia and Schmidt would see their value skyrocket by adding a couple miles per hour to the heater, while guys like Miguel Yajure have already started to see those improvements.
Returning to Montgomery and King, the uptick on the gas has a trickle down effect on the rest of their repertoire. For Montgomery, who already wield wipeout secondary offerings, an above-average fastball gets on the hitter that much faster. Because he can strike you out with his curveball, changeup, and cutter, opposing batters cannot sit fastball, so every mile per hour added makes it that much harder to catch up to the heat.
As for King, the combination of increased velocity with a tweak to pitch location can turn him into a legitimate major-league starter. King mentioned in his press conference on July 7 that catcher Chris Iannetta encouraged him to incorporate an arm-side four-seamer up and in to righties. David Cone subsequently emphasized the importance of such a strategy on the YES broadcast of the Yankees vs. Mets exhibition game on July 19. “If you can prove you can pitch in for strikes,” Cone explained, “It opens everything else up.”
The key here is the improvement in velocity. Throwing in for strikes is a dangerous game, and requires a quick enough fastball to blow past the batter. Once King establishes that he can throw his fastball by the hitter, it forces the opponent to respect the pitch. This opens up all of his secondary pitches: because the batter is cheating to get to the fastball, he is apt to be more fooled by a good breaking ball or offspeed pitch.
Baseball is back, the chase for twenty eight is officially under way. Even during these troubling times, the Yankees have given us a lot to be hopeful for in 2020. The team is loaded with stars, the farm is producing the next wave of Baby Bombers, and the Yankees finally have a coaching staff that can unlock and sustain the the potential of this roster. The first sign has been the boost in velocity of young starters Jordan Montgomery and Michael King. It is invigorating to see which pin will fall into place next.