Category: Analysis Page 1 of 32

Finding an upgrade over Gary Sánchez is easier said than done

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The calls to replace Gary Sánchez behind the plate aren’t new to this year. He’s been the most scrutinized player on the roster for a few years now. But this time, moving on from him actually seems possible. Especially when the team’s general manager says so. In a press conference last week, Brian Cashman addressed the catching situation: “We’ll evaluate that particular position because we’ll be forced to now as we move forward…but, ultimately that will be a subject that we have to discuss as well and it could very well be a change. It could very well be a competition.”

By “forced to”, Cashman is pointing to Sánchez’s dreadful 2020. The catcher hit .147/.253/.365 (69 wRC+) in 178 plate appearances and struck out 36 percent of the time. Defensively, the new catching stance didn’t take. Gary ranked in the 37th percentile in Statcast framing and he allowed 5 passed balls (after 7 in a full season in 2019). This isn’t the first time Sánchez has had a bad season (hello, 2018), but this year may have pushed the Yankees’ over the edge. The problem: it’s not easy to find good and readily available catchers in baseball.

The Yankees’ offense has thrown opponents a curve

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Breaking balls aren’t easy to hit. The entire league knows this. The Yankees know this. So, why bother swinging at them? That’s apparently the approach the Yankees are taking this postseason. And so far, so good. The Bronx Bombers have tallied 31 runs in 3 playoff games against some of the league’s top pitchers. Against pitchers with great breaking balls, mind you.

The Yankees have already defeated Shane Bieber and Blake Snell, two pitchers with elite breaking balls. Tonight, the offense faces another hurler with a terrific curve in Tyler Glasnow. Why not make it three-for-three? It’s going to be a very similar challenge to what they’ve already faced, after all. Bieber, Snell, and Glasnow all garner elite whiff rates on their breaking pitches. In fact, they had the top three whiff rates against their breaking balls (min. 100 pitches) this season:

PitcherWhiff Rate (%)
Blake Snell54.9
Shane Bieber54.3
Tyler Glasnow52.8

All three of these guys have some of the best curves/sliders in the game, but the Yankees’ approach has been impeccable to date.

Let’s take last night, for example. Snell threw 13 of his 20 breaking balls out of the zone, per Statcast, and the Yankees offered just twice. Both swings were by DJ LeMahieu. I don’t know if Snell had a tell or if the Yankees are simply locked in, but that’s damn impressive. Especially since Snell had a 37.9 percent chase rate against his curveball during the regular season. Further, the Bombers only went after three breaking balls in the zone. The memorable ones: Aaron Judge’s dinger and Aaron Hicks’s sacrifice fly. The other was a 6-3 groundout off LeMahieu’s bat.

Should Kyle Higashioka be Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher?

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Gerrit Cole gets the ball tonight in what will be his final regular season start. In all likelihood, Kyle Higashioka will catch him this evening. Higgy has caught Cole’s last three starts, all of which have been excellent performances from the ace. The Yankees have yet to put an official label on it, but it sure looks like Higashioka is Cole’s personal catcher. Should that hold, Gary Sánchez will be on the bench for Game 1 of the postseason. The numbers for Cole throwing to the two catchers are jarring:

By Catcher
Split G IP ERA HR BB SO BA OBP SLG tOPS+
Kyle Higashioka3 20.0 0.901527.127.184.21124
Gary Sanchez8 46.0 3.91121260.224.282.494131
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/22/2020.

Catcher ERA typically is not indicative of much, but considering how stark the results are between the two backstops and Sánchez’s lack of hitting this season, it’s become a pretty easy decision to make. Stuff-wise, Cole doesn’t look any different with either catcher behind the plate. That said, there are some differences worth pointing out that perhaps Gary can take into account for 2021.

When I last wrote about Cole, hitters were teeing off against his fastball. I surmised that a big problem was his inability to throw his secondary pitches in the strike zone, making it easier for batters to sit fastball. I guess I was wrong. Here’s a heatmap of Cole’s secondary offerings in his last three starts, all with Higashioka behind the plate.

And yet, Cole’s fastball has been even more effective despite a lack of curves, sliders, and changeups in the zone. With Higgy, batters have a .241 wOBA and .268 xwOBA against Cole’s fastball. With Gary, opponents’ wOBA is .343 and xwOBA is .366 against the heat. Huge difference.

Perhaps it wasn’t as simple as just being able to wait for Cole to throw a fastball since nothing else was going to be a strike. Rather, it appears that pitch usage with Higashioka behind the plate is not as predictable as when Sánchez has caught Cole. Let’s start with overall pitch selection:

Pitch TypeHigashiokaSánchez 
4-Seam51.0%54.1%
Slider20.9%25.5%
Curve20.9%15.0%
Change7.1%5.4%

Fewer fastballs and a little more balance in the slider/curve department when Higashioka catches. Let’s now go to when Cole falls behind in the count:

Pitch TypeHigashiokaSánchez 
4-Seam54.9%69.4%
Slider27.5%16.8%
Curve9.8%6.6%
Change7.8%7.1%

Now here’s a massive difference. 1-0, 2-0, 3-1…whatever the count may be, hitters could bank on a heater coming with Gary catching Cole. Not so much with Higashioka. Alright, how about when Cole’s ahead in the count?

Pitch TypeHigashiokaSánchez 
4-Seam47.1%44.8%
Slider22.1%35.6%
Curve23.5%15.6%
Change7.4%4.0%

Fastball usage is pretty similar here. If anything, Higgy has been more willing to have Cole throw his curve, whereas Sánchez went more slider heavy. Finally, let’s look at even counts.

Pitch TypeHigashiokaSánchez 
4-Seam51.9%52.2%
Slider15.6%23.0%
Curve26.0%19.5%
Change6.5%5.3%

Again, Higashioka seems to favor the curveball a bit more than Gary. Here’s a visual breakdown of count and pitch usage by catcher:

Higashioka catching.
Sánchez catching.

Overall, it’s evident that Higashioka has called a less predictable game with Cole on the mound as compared to Sánchez. In fairness, we can’t assign 100 percent of the credit or blame to Cole’s battery mates for pitch calling. He can shake them off he wants, you know. Still, the results with Higashioka have been much better and there is a noticeable difference in how Cole has attacked hitters with Higgy behind the plate. The fastball isn’t as hittable and the overall numbers are great.

I’ve been a staunch defender of Sánchez, but I can’t argue for him in favor of Higashioka with Cole on the mound at the moment. If Gary was raking, it might be a different story. I know he’s hit better of late, but it’s not enough to convince me that catching him over Higgy in Game 1 is the right move. It’s a bit easier to stomach Higashioka in the lineup now that the offense is at full-strength, too. This situation can be reassessed next year, but for now, it’s time to pair Higashioka and Cole for the rest of 2020.

Deivi García’s next challenge

It’s been just three starts, but it’s pretty easy to see that Deivi García belongs in the major leagues. That’s not just because of his terrific numbers thus far. Yes, a 3.06 ERA in 17 2/3 innings is great, but his presence on the mound has also stood out. It’s hard to envision a more composed 21 year-old pitcher on the mound than Deivi. Overcoming nerves and jitters as a rookie is a challenge for most, but apparently not a difficult one for García. Perhaps tonight’s start against the Blue Jays will be a bigger challenge. Toronto is familiar with Deivi now after facing him last week.

In his last start, García handled the Blue Jays with relative ease. In fact, the righty got better as the game went on, times through the order penalty be damned. His lone blemish in seven strong innings was Derek Fisher’s two-run homer in the second inning. Clearly, familiarity didn’t burn Deivi as the game went on. But going into tonight’s start, Toronto has had more time to prepare. Of course, García has an opportunity to review how he attacked the Blue Jays last time out and adjust as necessary.

Deivi threw fastball after fastball against the Jays to get things started previously. He shied away from it after the first and was a bit more unpredictable as things went on. In some innings, he went far more often to his secondaries (i.e. the 3rd and 5th). But in others, his fastball was his go to offering. Lastly, and perhaps most impressively, he started to introduce his slider at the end of the game to wrap things up. It was brilliant pitching through and through. Toronto was off balance all night.

Prior to that game against the Jays, Deivi had been much more consistent with his arsenal. Of course, we’re talking about just two previous starts, so take it for what it’s worth. That said, he was pretty comfortable pouring in fastballs almost two-thirds of the time. He also appeared to like going to his changeup more as things moved forward.

Maybe tonight Deivi doesn’t go all-in on the heater to start. Perhaps he leans on his slider earlier rather than turning to it later in the game. But who knows? Maybe as he’s warming up in the pregame bullpen, he realizes that he doesn’t have feel for his slider. Best laid plans and all. Further, there’s also something to be said about pitching toward one’s strengths. Deivi’s fastball is just that. He may be able to dominate with it again from the get go.

Now, that leaves us with how the Blue Jays might adjust. Toronto was extremely aggressive against Deivi and swung at 79.2 percent of pitches in the zone against him. That’s well above the league average 66.2 percent zone swing rate. Their logic? García is around the plate a lot. His 50.9 zone rate is higher than the 47.7 percent league rate. Might as well swing more if he’s gonna throw tons of strikes, right? Not necessarily.

Hindsight is 20/20, but it does seem like Toronto was a bit too antsy against Deivi. The rookie has shown that he’s adept at generating soft contact, much in part due to a ton of deception on his fastball. Toronto had a ton of trouble against the pitch last week. The only real damage was Fisher’s homer, which came against a fastball over the middle and a little down.

That’s pretty much the only location where Deivi’s fastball can be hit, because if it’s up in the zone, forget it. Take a look:

Toronto’s launch angle vs. Deivi’s fastballs.

Pop ups and foul balls galore when Deivi gets his heater upstairs. Maybe this time, Toronto will try to lay off García upstairs a bit more often. Easier said than done, of course, especially if Deivi has his usual good command.

García has become appointment viewing this season and tonight looks like his most intriguing start yet. We’ll see if Toronto has any answers for the Yankees’ budding star.

Gleyber Gone? On Torres’ Power Drop

In 2019, Gleyber Torres set the baseball world on fire, knocking 38 homers and loudly announcing himself as a star in the making. But a funny thing happened on the way to true superstardom in 2020: his power completely dropped off the table. While power wasn’t his calling card as a prospect and it seemed unlikely he’d push 40 homers again, the drop has been dramatic, though subtle. In fact, I didn’t realize just how drastic it was until Derek mentioned on the most recent edition of the podcast that, at the time it was published, Gleyber Torres and Mike Tauchman had the same amount of extra-base hits. If you’re tied with Mike Tauchman in any sort of power category, something has gone wrong. 

After processing what Derek said, I went to Statcast to see what I could find about Torres’ power and the first thing that jumped out at me–given its position on the page–was the display of Torres’ percentile ranks:

That is a lot of blue. It’s worth noting that Torres didn’t tear it up by Statcast stuff in 2019–his exit velocity wasn’t anything special then, clocking it at under 90 MPH as it does now. Still, though, it’s shocking to see a hitter so good rank so low relative to his talent and skill. This made me dig into the swing data to see what’s behind this bevy of blue.

Overall, his swing rate his down over 10% from last year–41.2 this year compared to 51.8 last year. As such, his in-zone swing percentage has dropped, too, from 75.6 to 65.6. On the plus side, his chase rate is way down and he’s walking more than he ever has. This comes despite a whiff rate–28%–that’s identical to last year’s and has led to a career low in strikeout rate–18.1%, part of a positive trend since 2018. But there’s a tradeoff to this drop in swings. Swinging at fewer pitches in the zone isn’t necessarily good or bad, but when you’re passing up good pitches to hit, it can be detrimental. Torres may be doing that.

While pitchers aren’t throwing him as many ‘meatball’ identified pitches–he’s seeing a career low 5.6% of those, indicating they’re are being careful with him–he’s swinging at drastically fewer of them than he did last year: 74.1%, down from 84.9%. This would suggest he’s not taking advantage of the few very easy-to-hit pitches he’s seeing. Those are pitches he–and anyone, really–should be doing damage on. By not swinging at them, he may be robbing himself of XBH opportunities. The same might be true when it comes to attacking pitchers on their first pitch to him.

Last year, Torres hit .362 on first pitches while slugging .862. This year, he’s hitting .400 and slugging .800 on them. Those numbers are similar and both great. However, since his first pitch swing percentage has dropped from 36.4 to 25.0, the overall impact may be lessened.

Aside from swinging less overall, there seems to be another problem: breaking balls. In 2019, Torres hit .256 with a .442 SLG against breaking balls, good for a .302 wOBA. Those numbers don’t look great (though that’s a solid ISO of .186), but that’s the point of breaking balls, isn’t it? So far in 2020, the numbers are way worse: .125 BA; .156 SLG; .197 wOBA. His whiff rate on breaking balls is also way up from 32.2 to 40.9. It’s hard to hit for any sort of power when you’re missing on that many breaking balls.

And that brings us to the last bit I found, everyone’s favorite bugaboo, from the aforementioned Mike Tauchman to the much-maligned, much-struggling Gary Sanchez: middle-middle pitches. Torres, like those two, is failing to punish pitchers for leaving balls over the plate.

He’s hitting .273 on pitches right down the middle that he makes contact with. Not bad in a vacuum, but considering where those pitches are and who he is, that should be much higher. Slugging?

He’s slugging .462 on contacted middle-middle pitches. Fine…ish, but not for him. And not for that location. It’s possible that Torres is experiencing some bad luck on those pitches, though. His expected batting average on contact for the zone is .383; his expected slugging on contact in the zone is .622.

However, given that this is a shortened season and that it’s almost over (went fast, didn’t it?), there may not be time for things to even out, to progress to the mean. Torres has to make some adjustment to get the power back–swinging more? swinging at different pitches?–because it’s not just going to fall into place like it might over 162. With his talent, I’m sure he can.

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