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The Yankees are optimizing Jimmy Cordero

Finding the subtle changes that have fully unlocked Cordero’s arsenal.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

It’s still only been three weeks and nine appearances, but Jimmy Cordero is already starting to fit snugly into the mold formed by the likes of Clay Holmes, Wandy Peralta, Lucas Luetge, Scott Effross, or Joely Rodríguez, among others. Relievers with unique traits or, as with Cordero, outlier stuff just a few tweaks away from being translated into elite results. Cordero’s early 3.24 ERA (three runs in 8.2 innings) with 11 punchouts and a single base on balls isn’t elite — yet — but it’s definitely exciting enough to warrant a closer look.

In his case, the outlier stuff the Yankees were drawn to when they signed him to a minor league deal prior to the 2022 season is top-of-the-line velocity that certainly doesn’t come easy, aesthetically speaking, but is as consistent as it gets. He averaged no less than 96.6 mph on either his sinker or four-seamer in any of the three big league seasons he appeared in before this one, and now, a full two years removed from Tommy John surgery and visually more athletic than ever, he’s pumping it in harder than ever, checking in at 98.1 mph at a time of year that’s not optimal for velocity.

While the velocity is much the same (or even better), two things are different about Cordero’s fastball usage from the last time he saw action on a big league mound, way back in 2020. The first is that it now consists entirely of the sinker. He’s completely ditched the four-seamer he threw 40 percent of the time as a rookie and at a 14.5 percent clip the subsequent two years. That’s good, because it was a terrible four-seamer, getting whiffs on barely 10 percent of the swings against it and being lit up by the other swings for a wOBA over .460 in two of those three years.

The second is that not only is he sinker-only, he’s filling up the zone with them like never before, pouring them into the box 65 percent of the time this year, up from 48 percent in 2020, which was itself higher than either 2018 or 2019. It’s carried over to his slider, too — we’ll get to that in a minute — but he’s never thrown close to this many sinkers for strikes before.

The “why” of that change is probably some combination of approach and mechanical tweaks subtle enough that I can’t say too much in this limited space other than noting that his release point has very conspicuously moved sharply to the left.

Looking at before/after video alongside the unchanged vertical release point, it appears that this is the result of changing where he sets up on the mound, rather than any drastic arm slot adjustment. Whatever the process, the result is clearly good: A harder sinker that he’s putting in more competitive locations than ever before. The bottom-line stats haven’t been fantastic — a .345 wOBA and .340 expected wOBA are roughly average for sinkers — but with a groundball rate that approaches 65 percent, it’s hard to argue it’s not doing its job.

When you mix in the slider that the Yankees have helped Cordero develop, the “job” that the sinker is doing makes a bit more sense. In the past, Cordero threw a traditional “gyro” slider, spinning the ball like a spiraling football and giving it a lot of drop, but not a ton of side-to-side bite.

That’s an okay-enough pitch in a vacuum, but it wasn’t a difference-maker, and got hit pretty hard when it wasn’t missing bats, perhaps in part because it didn’t pair very well with the heavy arm-side run of his sinker. The Yankees clearly thought they could do something about that:

It’s not the most dramatic improvement, but if you’re looking for a little bit of added sweep, it’s there. About three or four more inches of glove-side movement than in the past, to be exact:

The Yankees have clearly tweaked the way he’s spinning the ball. While it was an almost pure gyro-slider prior to this year, it’s added back some active spin and changed the orientation of the seams, helping give it that extra sweep. At the same time, the spin on the pitch more closely mirrors the spin on his sinker than it used to, which can add an extra layer of difficulty for a hitter trying to pick up a pitch.

Notice how in the second chart (2023), the sinker and slider bars are almost perfectly opposite each other, whereas in the first (2020), they’re more perpendicular. It doesn’t necessarily matter that much, since so much slider spin is gyro spin, but now we’re getting in the weeds. It doesn’t hurt, is all you really need to know.

The jury’s still out on Cordero, but the early returns are promising, If the improved command he’s shown of his sinker is real, the rest of the stuff is more than good enough to do the trick. He ought to have plenty of opportunities.