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Why do the Yankees take fastballs?

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Teams are crossing up hitters in the midst of an adjustment.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

What was the book on Yankee hitters for the past few years? What was the narrative about the big bats in the lineup? They’ll expand the zone, chase pitches away, and by the time you get late in the count, you can rip a slider into the other batter’s box; Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Gary Sanchez will swing through it. The breaking ball, late in the count, is the problem! Yes, yes, I saw the playoffs too.

But then something happened on Saturday night, with Tom Verducci talking about how few fastballs the Yankees are seeing relative to the rest of the league. After finishing an awful series with the Rays over the weekend, the team sits second-to-last in fastballs seen, just 45 percent of the time. It can’t just be that the Yankees are seeing breaking balls and off-speed pitches late in the count, but just broadly, pitchers have decided to work away from the fastball:

In fact, this is a broader trend over the Baby Bomber era. Yankee hitters see fewer fastballs in totality, but that playoff narrative? The one that says that once a pitcher gets a favorable count, the move is to huck breakers in until you get a swing-and-miss? That one isn’t the case in 2021.

The Yankees have actually seen an increase in the amount of fastballs they see, when they’re behind in the count:

The classic approach to hitting is to seek fastballs early, and then adjust as you get deeper in the count, protecting the zone against breaking and off-speed pitches. Early in 2021, the league has flipped that script entirely against the Yankees, and I think it’s catching up to them. For reference, each of the last three years, hitters have seen about 48.5 percent fastballs behind in the count, so in 2019 and 2020, the Yankees were right on league average. This year, the league is seeing fastballs when behind almost exactly 49 percent of the time, or a full point and a half lower than how pitchers are approaching the Yankees.

However, it’s one thing to look at the macro level, at every single pitch the Yankees see. It’s another to illustrate this in real time, to see the effect it has on a player’s plate appearance. As an example, someone who we would expect to be the least susceptible to pitching backwards is DJ LeMahieu:

Here we have two at-bats in two consecutive games against the Blue Jays. Both times, LeMahieu gets started with a fastball in — a pretty classic way to begin an at-bat. Against Robbie Ray, it’s a strike; facing Hyun Jin Ryu, a ball. We have two-at-bats, and DJ’s behind in the count in one and ahead in the other. Conventional baseball thinking would expect a breaker from Ray and a fastball from Ryu, but the exact opposite happens.

At 1-1 against Ray, LeMahieu sees the only real breaking ball of either AB, a slider he fouls away to go down 1-2. He sees a cutter from Ryu, also fouled off. DJ’s down in the count, facing two pitchers who throw really good breaking balls — Ray gets whiffs on more than 40 percent of his sliders and curveballs, for example.

Instead, Ray throws 96 to a hitter who’s guarding against the breaking ball, and LeMahieu watches it. Now, it’s a low pitch, and Ray might have gotten some help from the umpire. But Ryu’s cutter is a pretty clean strike, in the zone the whole way to the plate, and DJ gets caught guessing wrong:

The reason why I think it’s important to look at LeMahieu is because he can hit pitches all over the zone. He’s pretty famous for his contact ability. If even he is looking for a different pitch, and thrown off by fastballs in conventional non-fastball counts, guys who swing and miss more like Judge or Stanton are even more vulnerable.

To continue this approach, we can look at another guy who is perceived as more contact-heavy, Gio Ursehla, and a strikeout against Rafeal Dolis on Opening Day:

Urshela fouls through the first pitch, and takes a sinker/two-seam high to set the count at 1-1. He fouls off the slider to fall behind, 1-2, and like LeMahieu against Ryu, is pretty clearly looking for something else on the strikeout pitch:

I really like this moment, right here, because I think it explains the trouble that Yankee hitters are having quite concisely:

This is the moment that Gio Urshela realizes this is a fastball, and it’s going to end up in the zone, but by now it’s too late to do anything about it. He’s looking for something else; he’s certainly not thinking “I’m about to get 94 over the plate,” but that’s exactly what Dolis gives him. Strike three.

The last example I have of this teamwide pitching backwards strategy is perhaps the most egregious, and most frustrating. We’ve seen three examples of players with good bat control and contact skills, yet unable to adjust to a pitch they didn’t expect. But what about a guy with legendary bat speed? You would think that a guy with legendary bat speed would most capably adjust to a fastball that he wasn’t expecting. In theory, the quicker your bat, the longer you can wait on any given pitch to decide if you want to swing or not.

Instead, Clint Frazier has been called out on five fastballs for strike three, the most on the team. The worst, and yet perhaps most illustrative, is this one:

A three-pitch, all fastball strikeout isn’t exactly unheard of in baseball. You’ll see Jacob deGrom do it, or Gerrit Cole, or Aroldis Chapman, but what those guys all have in common is they’re throwing triple digits, high spin, up in the zone.

Instead, this is the classic rising fastball. Dean Kremer isn’t doing that against Frazier. The pitch he gets him on is 94, center cut, 2383 rpm, which is closer to the bottom of the four-seam spin leaderboard than the top. It is, by definition, a mediocre fastball. And Frazier can’t pull the trigger:

Once again, we have a hitter looking for something completely different, caught off guard by a fastball in a count where you don’t see fastballs.

I don’t know what the solution is for the Yankees. They could probably stand to be more aggressive — they’re 17th in baseball in swing rate on pitches in the zone — but going up planning to swing might leave you less exposed to the 1-2 fastball, but more vulnerable to the 1-1 slider. The Yankees have been a team that prioritizes working the count and seeing lots of pitches, and that strategy has paid real dividends over the past few seasons.

Baseball has flipped the script on the Yankees. They are not seeing fastballs, and when they actually do, it’s catching them off guard. It’s unlikely that a team is going to start throwing more fastballs to a team with as deep a lineup as the Yankees, so when they do get the heat, they simply have to be able to adjust better than they have so far.