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Yankees Sequence of the Week: Ron Marinaccio can’t beat Jeff McNeil

A closer look at the right-hander’s fastball and changeup issues.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at New York Yankees John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a tough few weeks for Ron Marinaccio. The young Yankees right-hander was excellent for all of his time on the roster last season, and after a bumpy stretch in May that saw him give up nine earned runs in 10.1 innings, he looked to have righted the ship once again with eight scoreless appearances in June. After a shaky start to July, though, Noah Garcia noted here that Marinaccio was already approaching his MLB innings total from last season, when fatigue may have contributed to his health issues down the stretch. Things have only gotten worse from there: two straight two-run outings over the last week have inflated his July ERA to 9.72, with a 9/8 BB/K split that doesn’t make it look any better.

The 27-year-old’s season ERA now sits at 4.33, which ERA+ pegs at 2 percent worse than average, accounting for stadium effects. The latest blow came on Tuesday, when a Jeff McNeil double plated both of the men on base to extend the Mets’ lead to 9-3, making it two straight outings that Marinaccio has been dinged for a pair. The six-pitch plate appearance that concluded with McNeil driving a full-count changeup down the right field line doesn’t explain all of his issues as of late, but it does get to a few of them. Normally, we profile positive Sequences of the Week in this segment; today, we’re looking at the unfortunate other side of the coin.

First, there’s the fact that Marinaccio started 3-0, first missing with a fastball that couldn’t quite nip the edge, then a changeup that stuck on his fingers just a little too long and got yanked in the dirt, nearly hitting McNeil.

It’s not that walks have been a huge problem — or at least, the problem — for Marinaccio. His 13.2 percent walk rate isn’t very good, but it’s identical to what he posted last year. He’s not putting the ball in the zone any less than he was last year, and he’s not throwing any more non-competitive pitches in the waste zone. But it’s clear that hitters are simply seeing his stuff better than they were before: his overall CSW rate is down five percent, driven by a 3.5 percent drop in called strike rate that indicates, in conjunction with a five percent jump in contact rate, that hitters are being fooled a fair bit less than they were initially.

On 2-0 to McNeil, he’s still not interested in throwing a get-me-over, but with the count advantage, McNeil isn’t quite tempted enough by the pitch to go after it and potentially turn it into an out.

This actually isn’t necessarily the greatest example of Marinaccio’s problems because even though his fastball hasn’t seen any drop in effectiveness, it’s still getting hit a lot harder — try a 122-point jump in expected wOBA on contact — possibly because he’s actually throwing it in the zone a little bit more than he did last year, with most of that increase coming on pitches in the “heart” of the plate. So, on the other hand, this might be a good example because although it’s hard to quantify, it seems that Marinaccio’s feel for location simply might have regressed, in a way that’s had results disproportionate to the magnitude of the change.

In the coming pitches, we see the real problem. After getting back in the at-bat with a fastball down the middle, Marinaccio goes back to his No. 1 weapon, the changeup that made him so effective against hitters of both hands last season.

That’s just not a great pitch. McNeil gets under it just enough to keep it both within home run distance and push it out of play, but at the end of the day, it’s 83 mph over the heart of the plate. And unfortunately, it’s been par for the course on his changeup this year, in terms of unwanted results. Despite relatively negligible changes to its velocity, spin traits, and movement, it’s getting crushed for a .372 wOBA (slightly undeserved, per a .321 xwOBA) after holding hitters to a .216/.206 split last season. Unlike the fastball, he’s throwing it in the zone about five percent less than in 2022, and consequently, hitters are swinging at it about eight percent less.

Not only is he throwing more balls with it, hitters are making a lot more contact when they do swing. And while its movement and spin appear to be relatively unchanged, pitch models say there’s evidence that there’s something else going on beneath the surface. The changeup’s quality according to Eno Sarris’ Stuff+ stat has dropped from 18 percent above average (118) to just two percent (102). Cameron Grove’s PitchingBot model sees a slightly less dramatic — but still measurable — drop in stuff — going from an elite 70 (on the 20-80 scale) to a very-very-good 66, with an identical deterioration in location from an average 40 to a slightly subpar 36. I’m not going to pretend like I understand the nuts and bolts of pitch modeling or how it works, but if both of those models are saying the same thing, even if to different degrees, there’s probably something to it.

That brings us to the 3-2 pitch he threw to McNeil. It was, as you can guess, a changeup. It did not go well:

McNeil had just seen a changeup and put pretty good wood on it, and while up in the zone isn’t a great location for a changeup, that spot is probably even worse. It runs straight into the hitter’s bat path without forcing him to pull his hands up and/or in, which can lead to just enough imprecision in the point of contact to force a foul ball like the one we just saw.

Instead, McNeil’s excellent bat control means he has no issues extending his hands and putting the barrel on it out in front. If you have a hitter backed up with a 98 mph that he has to account for, maybe you can get away with it. Marinaccio’s fastball velocity is down a tick this year, and he didn’t locate it well enough on the edges or at the top of the zone to keep McNeil honest.

The level of precision required to be a consistently elite reliever is gigantic, and it looks like Marinaccio just doesn’t have it right now. He may just be a few tweaks in process or mechanics away from returning to form, and I’m not exactly sure what they are, but it seems they probably need to be made — be it in low-leverage spots or even in Triple-A Scranton.