What is there to say about Gleyber Torres’s 2021 that hasn’t already been said? Sometimes, the simplest explanations are best: it’s been Bad. Real bad. Terrible. Horrible. No good. Very bad. Maybe he wants to move to Australia at this point.
It’s clear, or at least evident, that the rocket ball of the past may’ve had a good deal to do with Gleyber’s power surge and it seems the pandemic season of 2020 messed with him a lot. Fresh for 2021, though, I don’t think any of us expected what we’re seeing out of him now. His at bats mostly look weak and any hot streaks he’s gone on have quickly dissipated (though injury plays a role there). And that’s to say nothing of his defense, which has reached unacceptable levels.
Of all the things that have gone wrong for the Yankees at some point in 2021, the one we may not have seen coming is perhaps the most consequential.
After MVP-level seasons in 2019 and 2020, DJ LeMahieu has been thoroughly ‘meh’ for the Yankees. Not bad! He came into Saturday’s action sporting a league average 102 wRC+, which is…fine. But after the last two seasons, after re-signing for a long time and good money, it’s hard to call his 2021 campaign anything but a disappointment.
During his start on Friday night, Gerrit Cole reached the 200 strikeout threshold, becoming the first Yankee to hit that high since Luis Severino in 2018 and the first Yankee not named Luis Severino to do so since CC Sabathia in 2011. Per the tweet below, this was nothing special to Cole: just doing his job. That’s a great attitude to have as it’s yet another example of Cole holding himself to nothing but the highest of standards. Regardless of his modest assessment of himself, this is a great achievement.
As he has been since leaving the Pirates and their pitch to contact approach, Cole has been a strikeout artist this season. When looking into his strikeouts in 2021, something jumped out to me: his fastball. Despite a lot of scrutiny this year–STICKY STUFF PANIC–his fastball has actually become a more effective strikeout pitch for him than it was in 2020. Here are some numbers in table form:
Run value/100 pitches
In 2021, he’s tallying a better run value on the heater per 100 pitches, a better whiff rate, a better strikeout rate, a higher put away rate, and a higher in-zone whiff rate.
Similar to 2020–and overall Yankee philosophy–Cole works his fastball up the zone. This make sense as it’s a high velocity, high spin pitch. In 2020, he got plenty of strikeouts up in the zone. Take a look.
Those are, unsurprisingly, really strong numbers. But now, let’s look at 2021.
These numbers show straight up dominance at the top of the zone on both sides of the plate and down the middle. Note the increased in-zone whiff rate from the chart above and then compare the two images. He’s not tricking batters or getting them to chase; he’s blowing them away. And while he’s also getting plenty of strikeouts on his changeup and slider, the fastball’s increased whiff rate is what drove me to look into this deeper. It’s even more impressive that he’s doing this while throwing the pitch less than he did last season. Talk about a bang (or lack thereof?) for your buck.
At this point, it’s clear that this is just Gerrit Cole doing Gerrit Cole things. It’s easy to expect this from him given how he’s pitched in his time with the Yankees, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop and appreciate it. There’s a beautiful simplicity to this method of strikeouts: see ball, don’t hit ball.
As I wrote yesterday, the Yankees are the hottest team in the majors in spite of Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo not doing much at the plate. The new duo went 0-for-7 with four strikeouts and a walk in last night’s 5-4 victory to continue the trend. No one’s ringing the alarm about these guys struggling because the Yankees keep winning. Besides, why should anyone? Both of their track records indicate better times are coming. That said, it’s worth taking a look at what’s troubled these two lefty sluggers. Today, I’ll focus on Gallo.
Strikeouts will always be part of Gallo’s offensive profile. He’s gone down on strikes nearly 35 percent of the time this year, a tad below his career 37 percent mark. But since the Yankees picked him up, that number is 43 percent. And in turn, the rest of his game has suffered. He’s batting .143/.308/.345 (84 wRC+) in 104 plate appearances post-trade. Fastballs, in particular, have eaten him up of late.
If I told you the Yankees had a lefty pitcher whose fastball averaged 90.4 miles per hour (14th percentile) and whose fastball spin rate ranked in the 38th percentile, what would you think? I don’t think it’d be positive. You’d likely think it was a last-guy-in-the-bullpen situation. Enter Néstor Cortes, Jr. Despite those lowly ranks in things we might look for in a strikeout pitcher, Cortes ranks in the 68th percentile for strikeout rate and the 75th percentile for hard hit percentage. He’s been nothing short of amazing and was instrumental in helping the Yankees not only right but turn around the ship.
In 2021, Cortes has thrown his fastball 387 times to great, great success. To date, the pitch has a .165 BA against (.145 expected), a .224 SLG against (.226 expected), and a .222 wOBA against (.210 expected). It’s been his put away pitch 24.6% of the time and sports a 34% strikeout rate. All told, that adds up to 11 runs of value (Statcast calls this -11, but you get the idea), which ranks 14th in all of MLB (minimum 300 fastballs thrown). Part of the reason is location. Look at this plot of Cortes’ fastballs:
Lots of fastballs up and just out of the zone. These are locations, especially that red zone (87), in which it’s hard to put a good swing on the ball or make good contact. This is ironic considering his relatively low velocity and spin rate on fastballs. Typically, it’s high velocity and/or high spin rate fastballs that do damage to batters up in the zone. But, somehow, Cortes is doing it. Here’s his strikeout chart on fastballs:
Some big numbers appear in those out of the zone boxes at the top of the chart. One way or another, Cortes is getting batters to miss on well-located pitches. Maybe they think his ball is easier to hit because of the low velocity. Or maybe his changing rhythms and occasional deception in delivery are fooling batters. Either way, it’s working, even when they make contact. Remember that .222 wOBA mark against the pitch? Here’s what it looks like by zone:
Again, look at the numbers up in the zone and just out of it. He’s having great success with the high fastball, despite not appearing to have a fastball that would succeed up in the zone.
No matter the reason, Néstor Cortes has been a revelation for the Yankees this year. Their philosophy of working fastballs up in the zone has rubbed off on him, so that’s a credit to both a sound strategy and a pitcher who’s making it work. Nasty Néstor, indeed.