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Ranking the Yankees’ five best pitches of 2021

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The New York Yankees’ pitching has been excellent this year. Which pitches stand out above the rest?

MLB: New York Yankees at Oakland Athletics Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Yankees’ pitching has been excellent this year. As of Monday evening, the pitching staff ranks fourth in ERA (3.60), fifth in FIP (3.81), fifth in strikeout-to-walk percentage (17.7 percent), fifth in SIERA (3.83), and fourth in fWAR (19.1). Considering the fact that pitching was seen as the team’s weakness coming into this season, those are truly remarkable results.

To make sense of their success, I’ve done a deep dive into the best pitches the Yankees have thrown this year. Some of the results are no-brainers — numbers one and two in particular are the least shocking of the bunch, so we’ll get them out of the way first — but there is one in here that I don’t think you’ll ever guess. Let’s get to it, shall we?

#1: Gerrit Cole’s Four-Seamer

Emphasis my own
Baseball Savant

If you’ve been watching the Yankees at all this year, it will come as no surprise to learn that Gerrit Cole’s four-seamer has been the Yankees’ best pitch all season long. In fact, this pitch actually ranks as the sixth-best pitch in all of baseball.

So far this season, Cole has used his four-seamer 46.7 percent of the time, and for good reason. With his fastball spin rate (2459 rpm) sitting in the 91st percentile of the league, his fastball velocity rate (97.6 mph) sitting in the 97th percentile, and posting elite numbers in both vertical (10.8 inches of drop) and horizontal (12.1 inches of break) movement, Cole’s four-seamer has a run value of -19 per Statcast’s calculations.

At this point, the only surprising thing about Cole’s four-seamer is that hitters can actually make contact with it.

#2: Jonathan Loáisiga’s Sinker

Emphasis my own
Baseball Savant

Surprised? Neither was I. I mean, it’s not every day that you see a sinker with an average velocity of 98.3 mph. Throwing his sinker 54.3 percent of the time, Loáisiga generates over 2300 rpm of spin and induces a ton of soft contact, as evidenced by the fact that his hard hit rate currently sits at a meager 27.4 percent. Considering how hard he throws and the fact that he doesn’t miss a lot of bats, that might be the most impressive feat of all. All in all, his sinker’s run value currently sits at -11.

One thing to note is that Loáisiga doesn’t actually get a ton of vertical or horizontal movement on his sinker, as both (16.6 inches of drop and 15.6 inches of break) rank below the average rates across the league. How does he overcome this? By having hitters top the ball 51.1 percent of the time he throws it. In fact, his solid contact rate is currently sitting at 2.2 percent. Yup, you read that right. So, even though it doesn’t technically move at elite levels, Loáisiga’s combination of velocity and ability to spot it where he needs to makes this pitch the second deadliest pitch for the Yankees this season and the pitch that has led to his breakout campaign.

#3: Gerrit Cole’s Slider

Emphasis my own
Baseball Savant

Tied with Loáisiga’s sinker, Cole makes his second appearance on this list. Though it’s not surprising to see the best pitcher in the American League on this list twice, I thought for sure this entry would be his knuckle-curve rather than his slider. But, I digress.

Used 21.6 percent of the time, Cole’s slider generates 2600 rpm of spin, has an elite 34 inches of drop and 5.3 inches of break, and comes at hitters with an average velocity of 88.4 MPH. All of this leads to an ungodly 41.2-percent whiff rate, an equally astonishing .200 wOBA (.216 xwOBA), and an elite run value of -11. And, mimicking Loáisiga’s sinker, batters make solid contact on Cole’s slider just 4.3 percent of the time. That’s just simply ridiculous.

While I can talk about Cole all day long, I really want to talk about the next entry.

#4: Néstor Cortes Jr.’s Four-Seamer

Emphasis my own
Baseball Savant

Be honest: when I introduced the top-five pitches this season, how many of you thought you’d see Néstor Cortes Jr.’s somewhere on the list? Now, I want to be clear that I’m not knocking Cortes at all - like seemingly everyone else, he’s quickly become one of my favorite Yankees, too. But for a guy who, coming into this year, pitched to a 6.72 ERA and 6.69 FIP to rank in the top-five of anything Yankees related is absolutely a shocker.

If you’re as surprised as I was to see this entry, then let me reassure you that, yes, you’re reading the chart correctly: Cortes’ four-seamer has the same run value as Loáisiga’s sinker and Cole’s slider. Simply remarkable. With an average velocity of just 90.4 MPH, a low spin rate of 2203 rpm, solid vertical movement (14.9 inches of drop), and below average horizontal movement (5.3 inches of break), Cortes throws his fastball 43.2 percent of the time. Despite what seems like average numbers, his xwOBA is sitting at a great .226.

So what makes Cortes’ four-seamer so good? For some reason, hitters just cannot put good wood on it. In 2021, Cortes’ barrel rate has fallen from 11.1 percent to a meager 4.8 percent and his solid contact rate has fallen from 14.8 percent to a truly remarkable 6.1 percent. Maybe all those funky deliveries are paying off...

#5: Chad Green’s Four-Seamer

Emphasis my own
Baseball Savant

Despite some typical struggles here and there, Chad Green’s fastball has been very effective for the Yankees. While it’s not as good of a pitch as it was in 2017 and 2018, its -10 run value is the best its been in the last three seasons. In fact, it’s so solid that he has currently pitched to a .181 batting average on 4-Seamers.

Similar to Cortes’ fastball, Green’s four-seamer has elite vertical movement (10.8 inches of drop) but below average horizontal movement (4.3 inches of drop). What works in Green’s favor, though, is that his fastball spin rate (2498 rpm) ranks in the 94th percentile of the league. Though he’s betrayed by his propensity to give up a lot of hard contact — his hard hit percentage is by far the highest on this list — Green’s elite spin rate and vertical movement has led to the second best whiff rate of his career, making his four-seamer such an effective pitch. Now if only he’d throw it more...

As I mentioned from the jump, this year has been an overwhelming success for Yankees pitching, despite the struggles of Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton. A lot of credit rightfully goes to Matt Blake, but the pure numbers show just how important one - or, okay, two, in Cole’s case - excellent pitches are in the game today.