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Attack the Zone: How the Yankees rotation became a late-game force

We’ve written about the recent dominant stretch from the rotation, now let’s find out how they did it.

MLB: Spring Training-New York Yankees-Workouts Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last few weeks, we’ve written about the dominant run from the starting rotation and the increased willingness from Aaron Boone to therefore let them go deep in games. Today, I wanted to see if I could figure how and why they’ve been able to make it into the later innings. Is there some formula that can lead to sustained effective outings from the staff?

For at least the last few years, we’ve been told that starting pitchers should not face an opposing lineup for a third time. This third time through penalty truly entered the national consciousness when Rays manager Kevin Cash pulled Blake Snell from Game 6 of the 2020 World Series on only 73 pitches after he had made mincemeat of the Dodgers lineup to the through of 5.1 innings.

It is supposedly anathema to let the opposition face your starter for a third time for two main reasons: increased familiarity having seen his pitches twice and the fatigue factor. The more pitches a hitters sees, the more likely they are to pick up on pitch usage patterns, pitch movement, etc. And the more tired a starter gets, the more their velocity, spin, movement, and command suffer. The data broadly back up this assumption — over the last five years, starters have a 5.61 ERA and allow a .788 OPS when facing a lineup for the third time vs. a 4.02 ERA and .735 OPS against the first and second times through an order.

However, the Yankees starters seem to be bucking this trend. Indeed, Esteban found that some Yankees starters actually improve when facing a lineup for a third time. He also found that the fatigue factor is not as drastic as you’d expect, with Yankees starters managing to maintain velocity beyond the 85-pitch mark.

Starting with Jordan Montgomery’s 5/24 start against the Tigers, Yankees starters pitched at least six innings while allowing more than two runs just once for two full turns through the rotation. Speaking on David Cone’s Toeing the Slab podcast, Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake pointed to a confluence of factors that created a perfect storm that enabled this run.

He started by acknowledging that the Yankees have five talented starters with deep arsenals and premium stuff. He then cited pitch efficiency keeping pitch counts in check, holding a pitch back to give a different look the third time through, and game leverage being in the Yankees’ favor. And of course, he concluded by reminding that the trend of going deeper into game was at least partly borne out of necessity with guys like Aroldis Chapman, Jonathan Loáisiga, and Chad Green on the IL.

Let’s pick this apart one by one to evaluate the merits of his explanation. He’s certainly correct in saying the rotation is packed top to bottom with elite pitchers. Every member sits near the top of various leaderboards, whether it be pitch velocity, spin rate, pitch movement, strikeout rate, walk rate, chase rate, whiff rate, etc.

Moving on to pitch efficiency, it again appears that Blake’s onto something. Through the first week of June, the Yankees have the lowest walk rate of any team in baseball, meaning their starters aren’t extending innings. They also sit third in strike rate (65.8 percent) and first pitch strike rate (63 percent), and are among the league leaders in fewest pitches per plate appearance. They’re getting ahead of hitters early, continuing to pound the zone, and are retiring those hitters in an efficient manner, all of which reduce the amount of pitches it takes to get to the later innings.

Blake made a point of singling out the cutter as a one of the main drivers of this increased pitch efficiency. The starters have recognized how effective the pitch is at generating groundballs — each of the five’s cutters induces groundballs at a 40 percent or higher clip. They realize they don’t have to chase the strikeout — which can lead to elevated pitch counts as batter take chase pitches or foul others off — and can instead induce a quick, easy groundout early in the count.

Beyond just groundball rate, the Yankees staff collectively throws one of the best cutters in the game — fourth-best in exit velocity (85.3 mph) and sixth-best in xwOBA against (.286). That brings me to the next point, which is the utility of a deep arsenal. Gerrit Cole, Luis Severino, Jameson Taillon, and Jordan Montgomery each have four pitches which they throw at least seven percent of the time, while Nestor Cortes tends to rely on a three-pitch mix. Having this many weapons at their disposal allows them to save a pitch for the later innings, preventing a batter from keying in on a certain pitch in a given count and to a given location.

Finally, we come to Blake’s final point about game leverage. Starting with Montgomery’s 5/24 start against the Orioles through Severino’s 6/4 start against the Tigers, the Yankees carried at least a two-run lead into the seventh inning of seven of those ten games. They had at least a six run lead in three of those seven contests. Thus we have the perfect recipe for deep outings: elite pitchers with deep arsenals being pitch efficient and pitching with the lead.

Having written all this, the entire topic might’ve just been mooted by the collective egg laid by the three Yankees starters against Minnesota. Cole, Cortes, and Taillon combined to surrender 15 runs in 10.2 innings. However, that’s more a symptom of the trio just not having it on their given nights — Taillon and Cortes struggled to put guys away with two strikes while Cole decided he’d just hoof his pitches down Broadway to a dangerous Twins lineup. If the team follows the instructions laid out by their pitching coach, I have no doubt they will get back to being a late-game force.