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What’s up with Gleyber Torres?

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Not many teams would be off to a 9-2 start with a few star players slumping the way the Yankees have had thus far. Good thing the Yankees are loaded with stars. Yesterday, Matt broke down what’s going on with Gary Sánchez. Today, let’s take a look at what’s going on with Gleyber Torres.

Gleyber’s off to a .147/.216/.235 (32 wRC+) start in 37 plate appearances thus far. He’s reached base in just three of the Yankees’ 11 games this year. Two of those games were in the opening series vs. Washington a week and a half ago. Since that Nationals series, Torres is 2-for-25 with one walk and now 0 for his last 15. Who could have seen this coming after he went 3-for-4 with a homer and the game-winning RBI single in that series finale vs. the Nationals?

Simply put, Gleyber looks way out of whack at the plate. I think yesterday’s game really exemplified that, particularly his first plate appearance of the game. The Yanks had Zack Wheeler on the ropes in the first inning: bases loaded, no one out, and Torres at the dish.

That’s a middle-up fastball that Torres should have crushed, not hit into a routine double play. Wheeler does tend to induce soft contact (90th percentile in hard hit percentage), but that doesn’t matter when you throw a pitch right in Gleyber’s usual happy zone.

Take a look at what Torres did against pitches like that last year:

2019.

That wasn’t the only time Gleyber grounded out on a high fastball yesterday, either. Here’s the result of his second matchup with Wheeler:

This fastball was above the zone, but Torres managed to get on top of it anyway.

To see Torres chop a couple of high fastballs to the left side indicates that something is off with his mechanics at the plate. I’m not hitting coach or scout, so I won’t venture to guess what’s wrong, but I think it’s fair to assume his swing is not right if those are the results against pitches in that location.

I’ve made a sweeping conclusion regarding Torres’s swing by cherry-picking a couple of at-bats from yesterday, but there’s certainly more to this slump. One other thing that caught my eye is that Torres is 0-for-13 in at-bats that end with a breaking ball. It’s not unusual for hitters to struggle against curves and sliders, and it’s the pitch group Gleyber’s struggled the most with in his young career. That said, he did hold his own against this pitch category last season:

2019xwOBAwOBAWhiffs per Swing
Gleyber Torres.282.30232.2%
MLB Average.277.27434.6%

This year, Gleyber’s seen 52 breaking balls (37.4 percent of all pitches) and has whiffed on 12 of 27 swings (44.4 percent). This is an extremely small sample size, but it is worth pointing out that in response, pitchers are leaning into a breaking ball heavy approach against Torres this year. 34.3 percent of pitches against Torres were breaking balls last year, roughly three percent lower than what he’s seen this season. Further, the ratio of breaking balls to fastballs has trended up since mid-2019:

So, Torres will need to adjust. He’s already proven that he can handle this pitch category without much issue last year, so I’m not particularly concerned. Again, his swing must be off right now. If he’s bouncing into double plays on fastballs over the heart of the plate, he’s surely struggling to square up curveballs and sliders too.

All of this is a long way of saying that Torres is slumping. Slumps like this are far more noticeable at the start of the year too, since the numbers not only encompass the swoon but also the full-season stat line. He’ll snap out of this as he adjusts during the season. Remember, he hit .278/.337/.535 (125 wRC+) with 38 dingers as a 22 year-old last year. Gleyber’s way too good at hitting for him not to snap out of this funk.

A Deeper Look at Gary Sánchez’s Strikeouts

Not going anywhere

Dispensing with pleasantries before we even get to one, let’s just say that Gary Sánchez is not having a strong start to the 2020 season. In eight games, he has just two hits and one walk. In his 27 plate appearances, he has struck out 14 times. To quote a former Yankee manager and recent Yankee opponent, it’s not what you want. Let’s take a look at the how and the why for this ugliness and try to draw some conclusions.

When a player is striking out a lot more than normal, the first thing to consider might be if he’s swinging any more or less in general. That doesn’t seem to be the case as he’s about where he was last year, though with a slight downturn against offspeed pitching.

To spare you some more graphs, I’ll skip ahead to what I found most interesting in Sánchez’s swing profile this season. First, here’s his in-zone swing percentages.

Pretty normal, huh? And it seems to match with his overall swing percentages: about the same as always, but slightly less on offspeed. Now, here’s his in-zone swing-and-miss percentages.

Oh, boy. While the breaking and offspeed lines aren’t too alarming, that fastball one is…yikes. Whiffing on that many fastballs in the zone is not going to be a winning strategy for any hitter, even one as talented as Gary.

His out-of-zone numbers tell a similar story: a relatively normal distribution of pitches and a higher rate of whiffs:

We can see increases in chase/whiff percentages on both fastballs and breaking pitches. It’s never good when you expand the zone and miss those pitches you’re expanding on.

Overall, his strikeout percentages look like this:

Two of those lines are heading in a Not Great direction, aren’t they?

To drive the point home about misses even more, let’s look at his zone profile from Brooks:

Middle and up in the zone, he’s whiffing a lot. Up out of the zone, he’s wiffing a lot; those two areas–broad as they are–correlate with the fastball whiff percentages from the Statcast graphs. The middle and lower right portions of the zone profile correlate with the breaking whiff percentages from the Statcast data.

Almost nothing on the offensive side has looked good for Gary in 2020. But there are silver linings. It’s early in the season (funny to say in August) so there’s a lot of variance and extremity to these numbers. That alone means they’re going to come back down. Additionally, according to Statcast, the little contact he’s making has been pretty quality. He ranks in the 83rd percentile for exit velocity and in the 6oth for hard hit percentage. Once Gary starts making more consistent contact, things should level out for him. And when that happens, he can carry an offense.

An Early Look at Chad Green’s Curveball

Well hello there.

Chad Green is one of my favorite relievers to watch. Despite throwing his fastball as much as 86% of the time (2018), he manages to generate a whiff-per-swing rate north of 33% in his career, topping out at 45.5% in 2019. That sort of production is crazy for a one-pitch pony. It really is. Green gets by because of his truly elite velocity (96 mph average) and spin rates (~2450 RPM) on the pitch.

That elite fastball is the key ingredient in Green’s success in pinstripes. He is 18-7 with a 2.75 ERA (2.60 FIP) in 219.1 innings pitched since his 2017 debut, when he first made a splash. He strikes out 35% of the batters he faces while walking just 6% of them. These figures are even inclusive of his horrendous start to the 2019 campaign. Green is excellent because of his fastball. We all know this.

Still, Green has always worked in Spring Training to introduce a new pitch to his arsenal. It makes sense. He wants to be as dynamic and durable on the mound as possible. Plus, a legitimate breaking pitch will play off his fastball and probably elongate his time as a dominant reliever. In year’s past, that pitch was a splitter, but it never took. This year, it was a curveball. The big difference is that the curveball appears to be sticking.

First, Statcast shows us that he’s using the pitch more so far in 2020. About 25% of the time, actually. That 10% more than he’s ever used a non-fastball since joining the Yankee pen. In fact, he’s thrown it 19 times, 13 of which (68%) went for strikes. He’s thrown a third of them with 2 strikes, and batters have a 27.27% whiff-per-swing rate on the pitch. Batters have just one hit off the pitch (a weak infield single). It appears to be working, in other words.

I’ve been watching this closely all year, and I think last night was a showcase for why the offering can make Green an even better pitcher. Let’s start with this 1-2 curve to McCutchen. I’m using the whole video, and I suggest listening to Paul O’Neill’s commentary:

O’Neill was saying that McCutchen will know Green’s approach well from his time in the Bronx. In the clip above, you hear him say that Green loves to attack the top part of the zone with two strikes. True enough. Here’s Green’s 2019 four-seam pitch plot with two strikes:

I’d be looking for a high fastball, too. Instead, Green did this:

It wasn’t the best curveball you’ve ever seen. Far from it. But, given Green’s history, even offering it as a get-me-over pitch for show can be effective, as we see here. Not to mention, Green is obviously confident in it – he used it with two strikes to a good hitter with runners on second and third.

But it was in the next at-bat where it really shined and suggested to me that it can be much more than just a show-me pitch. Let’s go through this at-bat, again to a good hitter in Rhys Hoskins, pitch-by-pitch.

Strike 1:

“Strike” 2:

0-2 Foul:

After these 3 high fastballs, Green turned to his new curve and he snapped off an excellent one. Probably the best of the season. Check it out:

Here’s how that looks as a plot:

Nasty. That’s truly nasty. It’s very easy to see how and why a curveball in particular makes sense for Green. Pitchers have been using a curveball to play off fastballs for years. It’s a time-tested approach. Given how good Green’s is, it’s always made sense for him to try it.

I’m not sure if this new approach is a result of something Matt Blake suggested or something Green came up with himself. All I do know is that, in a limited sample, Chad Green sure looks like a much more dynamic pitcher thanks to his new pitch. Let’s hope he can keep it up.

Masahiro Tanaka’s Splitter is the Key to His 2020 Success

The split looked pretty good in March.

Masahiro Tanaka will take the mound tonight for his season debut against Boston. Of course, the start comes just one month after Giancarlo Stanton drilled him in the face with a 112 miles-per-hour screamer in camp. This will be Tanaka’s first start in his first contract year since coming to America, so he’ll want to make all of his limited innings count in 2020. Whether or not he’ll be back in pinstripes next year may very well depend on how well he is able to utilize his splitter. It is the thing to watch out of the gate.

The splitter is Tanaka’s trademark pitch. He throws it more frequently (27%) than any he does any other pitch save his slider (29%), though that’s a little misleading. Before 2019, the splitter was Tanaka’s most consistent offering –and for good reason. Batters hit .196 (.230 wOBA) against it, with an average exit velocity of just 87 miles-per-hour. His whiff-per-swing rate was often near 40%. It was a truly elite pitch.

For example, here is a particularly strong Tanaka splitter from a July 2018 matchup against Ji-Man Choi in the Trop. The pitch clocked in at 87 miles-per-hour with a very high spin rate, and it made Choi look foolish:

We’ve seen that countless times over the years. However, the ball famously changed in 2019 – all of this historic success came crashing down. Tanaka lost movement on the pitch, batters hit it harder and farther, and they made contact against the pitch far more than normal. It was a mystery, especially at the beginning of the year.

“It’s the seams,” former pitching coach Larry Rothschild said in July. “I’ve thought that for quite a while.” For his part, it took Tanaka a while to buy in to the idea that it was not a mechanical issue. Nevertheless, he finally made a drastic change to his grip at the trade deadline. The results were stark. The Yankees may not have traded for a new pitcher at the deadline, but they got one anyway. Check it out:

BAAwOBASLGISOUsageAvg EVAvg Spin
1st Half.279.320.469.19024%89.3 mph1580 RPM
2nd Half.234.253.330.09631%87.9 mph1601 RPM
2014-18.196.230.303.10728%87.6 mph1534 RPM

Obviously, it’s pretty clear that the pitch got much, much better. Given the difference in sample sizes, it was basically the same pitch it had historically been after it was borderline unusable in the first half. We covered this extensively here, here, and here, so check those out for more detail on the new grip, how the pitch lost its luster early on in the year, and how he got it back to normal.

Regaining the pitch helped him become more effective, as he pitched to a 3.79 ERA (3.70 FIP) with a 49% grounder rate in 61 innings from July 31 to the end of the season. Prior to the new grip, he had a 4.79 ERA (4.56 FIP) with a 47% grounder rate in 120 innings. (It’s only fair to note that there were two outlier starts in there skewing these numbers, but those starts count all the same.) Overall, this was a big difference, and the lesson is clear: an effective splitter makes Tanaka much more dangerous.

Now, this is not to suggest that the offering is his only good pitch. Far from it. His slider is also a lethal weapon – batters hit just .187 off the pitch in 2019 – that is good enough to carry him for stretches. I mean, look at this:

Devastating. Still, Tanaka is a low-velocity pitcher who relies on deception and complementary movement to be successful. He’s most effective when working low in the zone and lets the movement do the work. For example, check out this overlay GIF, courtesy of Pitching Ninja:

There’s more where that came from, but the concept is simple enough. Our man is not a flamethrower who can pump fastballs by hitters over the middle of the plate. He’s reliant on movement and pitch selection. As he gets older and his velocity declines – it hasn’t really yet but it will – then this will become even more important.

The old adage is that aging pitchers need to “learn how to pitch, not how to throw.” Tanaka, of course, already knows how to pitch: he’s been doing it since he came to New York. In over 1,000 innings since joining the Yankees, he has a 3.75 ERA (3.88 FIP) and 18 fWAR, and this doesn’t count his extraordinary October success. He’s been a very reliable and successful pitcher due to his ability to keep batters of balance and limiting free passes.

In other words, the formula for long-term success is already there. If he is able to show that the first half of 2019 was an anomaly for his trademark splitter, then I’m very confident he’ll be a steady presence in the Yankee rotation well into his thirties – and that begins tonight against Boston.

James Paxton’s First Start Provides Cause for Concern

A time-tested baseball mantra is that one should never overreact to one game. That is doubly true for the first appearance of a season, tempting though it may be. Still, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little bit concerned about James Paxton after Saturday’s truly disastrous start.

To be fair, most of that concern stems from Paxton’s recent injury. It’s not just a one start thing. He is still working his way back from back surgery that repaired a herniated disc in February. It is also worth noting that Paxton did not have a full Spring Training 1.0 due to this surgery, so comparing him to every other pitcher right now is not apples to oranges. He may just not be ready! For what it’s worth, the Yankees say that Paxton is “physically fine”, which is good.

Anyway, with that context in mind, let’s take a look at some of the issues that plagued Paxton in more detail.

A Lower Arm Slot

As he worked his way back from that surgery, Paxton noticed that his arm slot was a bit off. He said his slot felt “slightly low” and it was something that he was working on fixing during Summer Camp.

Evidently, he has not yet worked out the kinks. Here is his first pitch of the 2020 season, a 91-mph four-seamer to Trea Turner:

It can be hard to tell, but it’s different than in 2019. Check out this 95-mph fastball to Xander Boegarts from September:

His arm angle in 2020 is definitely lower than it was last year. Zooming in on the point of release really drives that home. Here are the two photos side-by-side followed by a marked up version:

2020
2020
2019
2019

It’s a subtle change, to be sure, but it’s one that becomes very visible on the marked-up version. Look at how much lower the release point is on the left: the crude line I drew is much, much straighter. Lest you think my methods here are less-than-scientific, there are two additional pieces of supporting evidence.

The first is this overlay, courtesy of Lucas Apostoleris:

Pretty dramatic when you look at it like that. The second piece of evidence, should you still need convincing, is that the scientific Pitch Info data supports it. His arm slot was much lower on Saturday. Last year, the vast majority of his pitches came out of his arm at a position of 6 feet or higher. Not a single one of his pitches last night, by contrast, cleared that threshold.

It’s a steep decline. Check it out:

Yikes! That really matters. It’s actually off by half an inch or so across the board. Interestingly, Paxton turned a corner in Seattle a few years ago – and gained velocity, as we’ll get to in a minute – by lowering his arm slot. (This is mostly unrelated, as it was five years ago and the plot is completely different. I just think it’s interesting.)

We know this shift is not intentional since Paxton has spoken about the fact he’s not happy with the new arm angle. He even said after the game last night that he was having mechanical difficulty – he said he couldn’t get “full extension” – and this could be a manifestation of that. It makes sense. Back surgery is no joke and it was always unreasonable to expect Paxton to be fully operational right away, I think, even if we all wanted it to be so.

Velocity Drop

The drop in arm slot correlates with a drop in velocity, too. I am not sure if the changed slot is causing lower velocity, if it’s just a general arm/core strength issue, or something else entirely. All I know is that it’s happening at the same time as a dramatic drop in velocity for the Yankee lefty.

The first pitch of the season last night was a 91-mph fastball from Paxton. A few weeks ago, he told Bryan Hoch that “the next step for me is finding the velocity. I’m not really a guy that gets that velocity in bullpens or anything like that, so that’ll be more of a game-time thing when the adrenaline starts pumping. It’ll be good to see some mid-to-high-90s numbers come in there. That’ll really show me that I’m 100 percent back.”

That made this officially a thing to watch, and what we saw was not pretty. It was obvious watching him – and obvious in that video above – that his fastball had just no life on it at all. Here is a chart that will help put into context just how far off his velocity was from the norm:

That is a slope that you just do not want to see on a pitcher in his prime, recovering from injury or not. Unsurprisingly, it’s also a key factor in Paxton’s success. As Mike Axisa noted at CBS, velocity on Paxton’s fastball directly correlates to a higher swing-and-miss rate and a lower batting average and slugging against, just like we’d expect. Velocity is very important to him.

I’m sure that Paxton can be successful if he’s not sitting at 99, to be clear, and, as Randy pointed out on Saturday, he had absolutely zero command of anything. That makes a slower fastball even more hittable. Still, we’ll want to see his velocity jump back up in future starts. That will help him look like this again:

“I think [my velocity] will come in time,’’ Paxton said after the game last night. “It’s definitely something I want to address and look at going forward.’’


The good news is that it’s been 1 (one) start, he’s still working his way back, and they’ve identified the issue. Crucially, he also says he’s healthy and pain-free. That’s the most important thing here. As I said before, he didn’t have a Spring Training and it may take him a minute to get back up to speed.

Still the combination of an obvious mechanical issue and reduced velocity is not a great one. It’s important not to overreact, but we should keep this in mind as the season progresses. The Yankees obviously want and need Paxton to right the ship. Let’s hope this is just a blip in the radar and we all can forget about it soon.

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