The Yankees have withstood the loss of ace Luis Severino in large part due to the surprising success of Domingo Germán. He was at times very impressive in his 2018 showing, but even his most fervent believers wouldn’t have predicted what he has done so far in 2019.
He is 11-2 in 82.0 IP, with a 3.40 ERA (3.81 FIP) and a 26.9% strikeout percentage against a 5.7% walk rate. Germán has been electric since returning from injury earlier this month, with a 2-0 record in 12.0 IP. He’s allowed only 8 hits and 1 run (on a leadoff homer in his first inning back) while generating 13 strikeouts to no walks in that span. Simply put, he’s been a lifesaver for the Yankees, both before and after the injury.
While he’s allowing a few too many home runs for my tastes, I don’t think there’s any question that Germán has put it all together so far this season. I took a look under the hood and found that a greatly improved changeup, and the tweak he made to get it, may have a lot to do with that success. Let’s get right to it.
A More Effective Changeup
Germán has pitched two extended runs in his brief MLB career, and in that time he’s always been a curve-first pitcher. Check out his usage rates:
Pretty clearly reliant on his curveball, featuring it significantly more than any other pitch. And for good reason: when that pitch is on, it’s on. On Friday night, for example, German threw 34 of them. Batters swung at 17 (50% swing rate) and of those, 13 (76%) came up empty. That is a serious pitch.
But it’s his changeup that’s most interesting to me, not the curve. He’s throwing it more than last year, and I think it will be clear why that is in a moment. Check out some key numbers against the changeup over the last two years, per Brooks Baseball and Statcast:
|BAA||SLG||xWOBA||Flyball Rate||Swing Rate||Whiffs-Per-Swing||Exit Velocity|
There’s a bit to digest there, but overall, it’s pretty clear that the pitch has been more effective this year. Batters are hitting .100 percentage points lower against the pitch in 2019 compared to 2018 and fewer balls that get do get hit go into the air. Couple that with a reduced quality of contact and you’ll see fewer extra-base hits against the pitch and concurrently better expected stats. All of that is true here.
Check it out in GIF form:
It’s interesting that batters are swinging less against the pitch and also whiffing less often than last year, though. You wouldn’t think that based on the results, especially not in the strikeout-obsessed MLB of 2019.
But you know what? The results are the results, and the pitch is clearly more effective. Plus, I think the increased usage–it’s not huge, but it is still significant–shows that Germán and the pitching coaches think so, too. It’s all enough to make you wonder what changed. We’ll get to that in a second, though.
What does this mean for Germán’s effectiveness? Primarily, it means that he’s much better against lefties. That’s because 80% of his changeups are used against lefties. Check out the splits:
- 2018: .256/.328/.506 (.834 OPS)
- 2019: 219/.243/.388 (.631 OPS)
Now, Germán has been much better against both righties and lefties this year, but the improvement is more dramatic against lefties. I think it’s fair to say that’s because one of the pitches he uses against them is suddenly way better. Very good, Domingo.
An Abnormally High Spin-Rate
Next, let’s take a quick look at Germán’s changeup spin rate data, courtesy of Statcast. Conventional wisdom with changeups is that you want less spin, not more–the point of the pitch, after all, is for it to die off after looking like a fastball. Naturally, that requires fewer rotations on the baseball.
Germán’s change, though, is decidedly not like that. 135 pitchers logged at least 200 changeups in 2018 and 73 have done so thus far in 2019. Here are the top 5 changeups by average spin rate, with 2018 on the left and 2019 on the right:
1. Danny Duffy: 2412 RPM
2. Domingo Germán: 2392 RPM
3. Tony Watson: 2384 RPM
4. Jason Vargas: 2301 RPM
5. Chase Anderson: 2247 RPM
1. Domingo Germán: 2422 RPM
2. Trevor Richards: 2399 RPM
3. Tony Watson: 2383 RPM
4. John Means: 2327 RPM
5. Steven Matz: 2316 RPM
Germán appears on the list twice and actually sits atop it this year. He and Tony Watson are the only two repeat offenders, but Germán’s has spin rate has actually increased (Watson’s is identical, because baseball is ridiculous) as it has gotten more effective. That bucks conventional wisdom.
Moreover, Germán’s change is actually close to his fastball in terms of spin, which is definitely a bit strange. I guess it could make them seem more similar? I don’t know. Anyway, check out his average change spin rate with his average fastball spin rate in parentheses:
- 2018: 2392 RPM (2498 RPM)
- 2019: 2422 RPM (2437 RPM)
That’s unusual, and what’s especially weird is that the two spin rates have actually converged as the change has been more effective. I was definitely not expecting this.
Location, Location, Location
However, there is a pretty good indicator of how and why this pitch has become more effective for Germán this year: he’s simply locating it better. Check out 2018’s pitch location map against 2019’s, again via Statcast:
I think that is pretty clearly illustrative of why this pitch is more successful this year. In 2018 (left), his changeups were concentrated much higher and over the middle of the plate, trending down and away to lefties (the map is from the catcher’s perspective). In 2019 (right), the same pitch is much lower and in the lower-outside quadrant to lefties.
Moreover, you can really see how the heat map (look at the red cluster behind the area of greatest concentration) how much better his location is this year. I don’t think it’s particularly surprising to see the pitch be more effective given his control of the pitch. That said, though, we still haven’t yet determined why he’s made this leap.
A More Consistent Delivery
Finally, let’s take a look at his delivery to see if we can find some answers. Let’s take a look at some charts, shall we?
To begin with, let’s remember the goal of a changeup: it’s designed to deceive the batter, who is supposed to see a fastball but get a changeup. An easy way in theory but difficult in practice way to do that is to repeat a delivery in such a way that a batter can’t detect subtle differences in arm slot/angle to determine what’s coming next. (This is what makes the PitchingNinja account so great–this is what is captured.)
Look at Germán’s horizontal release point on his changeup and four-seamer compared to this year and last, again per Brooks Baseball:
That’s a downward trend on all his pitches, but especially on his changeup. It’s really drastic, honestly. But for our purposes, note how it’s converging so dramatically with his fastball release point. Last year they were far apart. This year, they’re much, much closer together. As I said before, this is essential–it is the mechanical underpinning of the changeup’s necessary deception.
We can also see the vertical release point, too. Check it out:
Once again, a notable change. His fastball release point is now higher by a lot and his changeup release point is slightly lower. The result? A convergence yet again. Last year they were far apart, this year much closer together. That’s interesting, and we are now starting to get some answers.
What does this all mean? Basically, it tells us that the point at which Germán is releasing his fastball and his changeup is closer to the same point. He’s closed the gap in his arm angle/slot by a small amount in real terms, but in such a way that seemingly makes the changeup more deceptive and effective. Maybe it is even more deceptive due to the similar spin rates noted above too. Maybe his repeatable delivery even helps him with his location, also highlighted above.
To really illustrate this point, take a look at those two points mapped over one another. This shows the release point. Check it out for his fastball and changeup in 2018:
Notice that little blue dot outside the black circle? That’s where Germán was releasing his change last year. That might not seem like much, and it truly isn’t, but MLB batters are remarkable. It means that, on average, there may have been a visible, if implicit, difference in Germán’s delivery last year.
Let’s check out what that convergence did to this chart for 2019:
That little blue dot is a lot harder to see this time, isn’t it? It is there, though. That’s because it’s actually within the black dot, which means that his release points have actually fully converged. They’re at the same point.
All in all, I think that pretty clearly illustrates why Germán’s changeup has been so much better in 2019: presumably, a slight mechanical tweak led to a slightly altered release point. That’s made the change much more effective and given Germán another weapon in his arsenal.
What Does It Mean?
I should point out that this doesn’t necessarily have predictive value–maybe Germán will revert back to old habits in his next start–but I think that this is actually pretty encouraging. The tweak here is clear: remember, there were fairly significant shifts with his release point with his other pitches, too. It just so happens to have impacted his changeup most significantly. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but to me that suggests a real mechanical tweak.
I also want to point out that I looked–I really looked–to see if I could spot the tweak with my eyes. I overlaid random videos of his changeup from 2018 over his changeup from 2019, took screenshots of his release point, looked at where he set up on the rubber, everything. Just couldn’t see a change. That’s how subtle we’re talking here, if the graphs themselves didn’t make it clear. If you see something, please let me know–I’d truly love to see it.
Also, I don’t think I’ve seen Germán or anyone on the Yankees discuss a major change to Germán’s delivery this season or from Spring Training, for that matter. This could be one of those things that just clicked or that is so subtle it doesn’t merit a mention. Who knows?
Anyway, I think that this is all very encouraging for Germán and the Yankees. Whether or not this was an intentional shift, one thing is for sure: Germán is a much better pitcher in 2019 than 2018, and I think his improved changeup, however it came about, is a major reason why.