If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far in 2018 watching Yankee baseball, it’s “don’t panic during the first inning”. The team has so much offensive depth that they lead the league in come from behind wins, and just in the last week we’ve seen New York strike late to beat the Mets and Rays.
The principle applies to the pitching side as well, especially in games Domingo German starts. Thrust into a rotation spot to cover for Jordan Montgomery, German is building a reputation for giving up early leads. The Mets touched him up for three runs in the first inning last Saturday, and the Rays scored on the very first pitch of the game Thursday night. The Yankees came back to win both games, and German was far from terrible following his early yips, but these early struggles made me curious to peel apart German’s performance a little more.
The basic stuff is pretty simple. Domingo’s FIP outperforms his ERA, and his xFIP is outperforming his FIP. Long story short, you could make a case that his process so far in MLB has been superior to his results, and that if the process remains the same, should lead to better results going forward.
Most of that optimism comes from his strikeout ability, and more specifically, the ability to induce swings and misses. Those aren’t necessarily the same; the latter means you have to trick major-league-calibre hitters into believing they can hit a pitch they really can’t. Whiff rate obviously correlates well with overall performance, and a glance at the league’s best in swinging strikes in simultaneously predictable and comes with a glaring surprise:
These are the five best qualified starters in baseball at whiff rate, and Domingo German. If he had enough innings to qualify, he’d be the third best pitcher in all of baseball at fooling hitters. The other names up there are the cream of the MLB crop, and on pure stuff alone it looks like German belongs with them for now.
So Domingo is elite at avoiding contact, at least by this one metric. That leads to a lot of the optimism around him; in a game where hitters are striking out more and more, being able to miss bats at an All-World level is an obvious asset. However, it’s what happens when German DOESN’T miss bats that leads to the source of pessimism around him:
This shows what all MLB starters give up in terms of contact. You all know how this works, more ground balls and more IFFB are generally good, more fly balls and line drives are generally bad.
THIS is what German has given up for contact, and it’s why there’s real reason to be a bit worried. He gives up more bad contact - fly balls and line drives - than the MLB average, and doesn’t really generate as much of the good contact as you want.
Contact type is tough to analyze since it generally takes a while for pitchers to learn how to manage it. We’ve seen the “crafty vets” like CC Sabathia or Marco Estrada consistently manage contact type, but it’s usually something learned, not inherent. Heck, Luis Severino’s line drive and fly ball rates have gone up in 2018, showing even the Yankees’ best pitcher has some growth yet.
German isn’t quite Severino-level yet, obviously, and because he doesn’t have elite, or even good, command, the batted ball results may end up hurting him more than other pitchers. The division he plays in is obviously difficult on pitchers, and by issuing more free passes than an average starter, the bad contact he gives up often comes with men on base.
German is in the Yankees rotation for the time being, and only a significant trade and the healthy return of Masahiro Tanaka will force him out of his spot. There’s been a lot to like about Domingo, and it starts with his ability to miss bats. The difference between him being able to stay in the majors or not, however, comes down to what happens when he doesn’t miss a bat.