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After his best start of the season, is Domingo German onto something?

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Following a couple of early-inning implosions against the Rays and Jays, Domingo German finished his most recent outing against Cleveland with five scoreless.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

After serving out an 81-game suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy, Domingo German has finally returned to the Yankees’ rotation, starting three of the club’s first 18 games of the season. In his first two starts, German looked totally unequipped to take care of big league bats. In his third, however, German soldiered through a rough defensive first inning before cruising through the next five without allowing another run to scratch.

The most easily discernable development across these outings is the increasing pitch counts — from 68, to 79, to 90. As German’s been able to avoid being tagged early, he’s made it deeper into games, allowing the Yankees to begin the process of stretching him out into full starts, assuming he’s able to hang onto his spot in the rotation.

While he’s increased his strikeout totals in each successive performance, going from two, to five, to six, he hasn’t done a better job of missing bats — going from seven, to 14, then back to seven swings and misses in his three outings. As of now, it doesn’t seem that his stuff is sharp enough to miss bats particularly often. His league-average 93 mph fastball is almost exactly the same speed as it was in 2019, but isn’t quick enough to keep hitters off-balance. When he elevates it over the middle of the zone against a good hitter, this is liable to happen:

So far, in 14 at-bats against German’s fastball, he’s yielded an .833 xSLG and generated whiffs on just 15.6 percent of swings.

He’s also deployed a sinker about 10 percent of the time, and it’s been hit even harder that the straight fastball. In ten at bats against German’s sinker, opposing batters have five hits, including two for extra bases. In 2019, it performed about as well as German’s fastball, exchanging some swings and misses for inferior contact. In the right spot, it can provide a marginally improved utility compared to the straight fastball, but it’s otherwise basically just as hittable as the four-seam, if not more so. In total, four of the seven extra base hits German’s allowed have come against some variation of his fastball.

The other three, including two bombs, have come against his changeup. German’s changeup’s expected stats haven’t been quite as bad as the four-seam fastball’s, but the results have been much worse. With two homers and a double off of German’s change, batters are slugging .765 against the pitch despite an xSLG of .496. While a near .500 slugging is certainly sub-optimal at best for a pitcher, it’s workable for a tertiary option in an arsenal. Further, .496 is the exact xSLG batters posted against German’s change in 2019, his last full major league season. Since he’s missing bats at the same rate as he did in 2019 with the change (approximately 25 percent), German’s effectiveness with the pitch should start to normalize.

Domingo German’s bread and butter, his curveball, has been basically up to his 2019 standards. Across the board, it’s again proven to be his superior pitch, holding hitters to a .235 wOBA, far better than his .399 overall mark. Also, batters swing and miss about a third of the time. While it’s not quite up to his 2019 snuff, when batters whiffed on 45 percent of swings, that rate didn’t feel sustainable then due to his below average break on both planes. For comparison, Gerrit Cole’s curveball, arguably one of the most effective in baseball, has generated swings and misses about a third of the time over his past two 162-game seasons. German’s curve isn’t quite in the same category as Cole’s — he’ll be lucky if he sustains his current whiff rate, but shouldn’t keep his fingers crossed for a return to 2019’s obscene pace.

Across German’s three starts, there is little evidence pointing towards a return to former glory. While the quantitative stats have improved, the qualitative ones have not. In fact, in German’s most recent, most successful start, he pitched with the least velocity and spin of his three starts. What is more likely is that he benefitted from a particularly bad day from one of baseball’s weaker offenses. As of April 23rd, Cleveland has scored the fifth-fewest runs in baseball, while his first two opponents, the Rays and Jays, have scored the fifth-most, and 20th-most. While the talented Jays’ offense has slumped so far, they were red hot for an unfortunate moment as German fell victim to second inning homers from both emerging slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and determined Yankee killer Randal Grichuk.

Even with a substantially better performance in his third start, German’s about the same guy he was in the first two. As long as he throws the curve more often than his fastball, he’ll have enough success to be a viable option at the end of the Yankees’ rotation, but shouldn’t be trusted to start an important game come playoff time. The fastball is simply too soft to be a weapon on its own. In 2021 it’s basically impossible to be a solid starter in the majors with a good curve and an okay changeup without a high-end heater to complement them.

German shouldn’t be as bad as he was in his first two starts again, or as good as he was for the final five innings of his most recent one. As is so often the case, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.