Outside of a long win streak in the second half, it felt like the Yankees were in a multi-team dogfight throughout 2021, scratching and clawing their way toward the playoffs, ultimately making it as the second Wild Card team.
There is no shortage of reasons for how New York found themselves fighting for their playoffs lives rather than comfortably making the postseason. Off the top of my head, two come to mind. The first was the Yankees’ drastic underperformance versus the Orioles, especially relative to how the Rays handled Baltimore. Second, the bullpen suffered some epic meltdowns, blowing large leads on multiple occasions.
As I thought about the 2021 season, a lesser culprit emerged. It felt like Yankee pitching surrendered a ton of important hits on 0-2 counts. In a macro sense though, that actually was not the case. New York had the 2nd-highest K% and the 3rd-best ERA and FIP in the American League once their pitchers reached an 0-2 count, as per our own Peter Brody.
Nonetheless, in too many Yankees losses in 2021, opposing batters came through with backbreaking hits on 0-2 counts. Overall, Yankee pitching surrendered nine home runs on 0-2 counts in losses this year. Missed location, with both fastballs and breaking pitches, explains many of them.
Yankees ace Gerrit Cole was not immune to this trend. Overall, Cole’s penchant for surrendering the gopher ball vastly improved in 2021, dropping from 1.73 HR/9 the season before to 1.19. But Cole relies heavily on his four-seam fastball, throwing it 47.1 percent of the time in 2021. It’s almost inevitable that he is going to miss with it from time to time.
Cole took the mound on May 17th versus the Texas Rangers, a game the Yankees ultimately lost 5-2. The Bombers jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first, but in the next half inning Adolis Garcia punished an 0-2 Cole fastball to tie the score. Catcher Kyle Higashioka set up down and away, but Cole missed middle-middle. Garcia did not miss. In the bottom of the fifth inning, Willie Calhoun replicated his teammate’s feat. Higashioka set up down and in on 0-2, and Cole missed up and away. Calhoun’s solo dinger extended the Texas lead to 4-1.
Texas was not the only team to victimize Cole with the long ball facing an 0-2 count. On June 27th, Cole faced the hated Red Sox in Boston. In the bottom of the first, Cole had already surrendered a first-pitch gopher ball to Kiké Hernandez and with one out, faced Rafael Devers with two runners on. Higashioka set up down and away. Cole missed his location and left his fastball middle-middle. One swing of the bat later and the Red Sox led 4-0, eventually winning the game 9-2.
Cole was not the only Yankee hurler that Devers victimized for a three-run smash on an 0-2 count. Earlier in June, Michael King, starting against the Red Sox, didn’t quite elevate his fastball enough to the Red Sox slugger in the first inning. The result was a 3-0 Red Sox lead, one they never surrendered, as they beat the Yankees 5-2 in the Bronx. No more hittable pitches to Devers on 0-2 ever again, please.
Opposing hitters did not just punish errant fastballs. On June 18th, Jameson Taillon faced off against the Oakland Athletics. With two out in the first inning, Higashioka set up down out of the strike zone for a slider from Taillon. Jamo though, missed his spot and left the slider down and in, right in the wheelhouse for a lefty. The results were predictable. Oakland took the lead early and emerged with a 5-3 victory.
One more, and then we can be done suffering. Taillon again, this time against the Angels on August 31st. The Yankees had taken the lead 1-0 on a solo dinger by Anthony Rizzo in the top of the fourth inning. In the bottom half, with David Fletcher and Shohei Ohtani on base, Taillon missed badly with a curveball to Jared Walsh. Gary Sánchez set up down, out of the strike zone. Taillon’s curveball spun, hung, and Walsh obliterated the middle-middle hanger to take a 3-1 lead in a game the Angels won 6-4.
As an aside, it should shock absolutely no one that Andrew Heaney gave up his share of 0-2 hits, including a solo home run to Jose Abreu during the Field of Dreams game to give the White Sox a 1-0 lead. But I suspect no one, including me, wants to relive the Heaney Experience in detail.
It is once again worth mentioning that the Yankees excelled at limiting damage on 0-2 counts, outperforming the vast majority of their American League peers. But in a season when the Yankees had to struggle to make the playoffs, every loss hurt. And in a division that figures to be just as competitive going forward, it is imperative that Yankee pitchers avoid giving up the long ball when they have opposing batters staring down 0-2 counts in 2022 and beyond.