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The Yankees need to be ready to adjust in Game Two

The Bombers won a game of high-stakes chicken against Shane Bieber. They can’t flinch just yet.

Wild Card Round - New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians - Game One Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The Yankees shelled the presumptive AL Cy Young winner, Shane Bieber, for his shortest and worst start of the year. He gave up more hits and runs than he had all year in just four and two-thirds innings.

As predicted by the apparently clairvoyant Tyler Norton, the Yankees found tremendous success by attacking fastballs and spitting on curveballs against the Indians’ ace. In doing so, they were able to neutralize Bieber’s superpower, the ability to tunnel all five of his pitches.

Despite Bieber’s tendency of throwing his offspeed outside of the zone, during the regular season, hitters were usually unable to distinguish the difference between his five pitches until it was too late because they looked so similar out of his hand. The uniquely discerning Yanks, owners of the highest regular season walk rate (11.4%) in the majors, eliminated breakers from their menu, making Bieber look more like the Canadian pop-star who shares his namesake than the best pitcher in the American League.

The Yankees’ two hitters who homered off of Bieber represented the peaks of this extremely successful approach. After DJ LeMahieu laced a fastball into right field, Aaron Judge took a first pitch fastball 108 mph into right center field to get the party started.

This is a mistake—Roberto Perez wanted this low and outside—but Judge was ready for it. Had Judge taken this pitch, trying to work a count, he’d have likely missed his best opportunity to drive a hittable pitch. However, by taking advantage of a flat first-pitch fastball, Judge effectively made Bieber’s Cy Young stuff extremely average.

In Gleyber Torres’ first plate appearance against Shane Bieber, he didn’t see a single straight fastball. Though he was fortunate enough to chop a knucklecurve off of Bieber’s glove for an infield single, Bieber qualitatively won the at-bat, inducing contact with a .060 xBA. In his second at-bat, Torres held his ground, taking a cutter and a curve for strikes, then patiently watching four straight curves drop out of the zone for a walk. In his third time up, his patience paid off, fouling off the first fastball he saw all game, then tanking a middle-middle heater to left-center on the following pitch, knocking Bieber out of the game.

All evening, the Yankees stuck to the game plan, and it worked. The Yankees dealt the best-of-three series’ first haymaker, but an alternate result in Game Two could easily swing the series back in the Indians’ favor. This isn’t over just yet.

Though Game Two starter Carlos Carrasco also likes to lean heavily on his breaking and off-speed pitches to finish off hitters, he also attacks the zone with them far more regularly than does Bieber. Only 27.7% of all of Bieber’s non-fastballs were thrown within the strike zone in 2020. Cookie, however, threw 44.8% of his non-fastballs in the zone. Though the Yankees won their game of offspeed chicken against Bieber last night, they might not fare as well with Carrasco’s willingness to throw the same pitches for strikes.

After scoring 12 runs and taking a series lead, they shouldn’t abandon the plan so far just yet. They should still look to hunt fastballs, and avoid chasing breakers…but when isn’t that the case? If Carrasco brings his A-game, proving capable of pitching backwards and painting corners with his three primary pitches, the Yankees will need to make the mid-game adjustment. You only win the game of chicken if you bail after your opponent and, crucially, avoid getting run over. If the Yankees falter early, they should be prepared to expand their approach to hunting hittable pitches, not just the straight ones.