Last week, I wrote about MLB using two different baseball models in 2021 and how that affected the Yankees (ICYMI: this stemmed from a report by Insider’s Bradford William Davis). In short, I theorized that the Yankees disproportionately played with the new spec ball at home (i.e. the deadened ball). There were stark differences in batted ball distances for the Yankees’ offense when comparing results at Yankee Stadium to the road. I didn’t look at the results against Yankees pitchers, however. Let’s do that today.
If MLB did indeed supply the new ball to Yankee Stadium exclusively, we should see results similar to the ones I gathered last week. Yankees pitchers should benefit at home, generally speaking.
Unlike the Yankees’ offense, we’re not seeing a consistent distance disparity among different batted ball types for the team’s pitchers. Things are pretty neck-and-neck, if not traveling further, at home as contact quality improves per the table above. This is very high level data though, so let’s get more granular like my previous post. First, by launch angle bins:
From 13 degrees to 26 degrees, things are consistently in the pitchers’ favor at home. This is somewhat compelling, albeit not to the extent of what I found for hitters. The Yankees’ lineup exhibited shorter distances at home on launch angles from 14 to 30 degrees with two very minor discrepancies. Here, the range is smaller, with a larger blip at the 20 to 21 group. Then, as the launch angle gets higher, the ball travels further. Let’s move on to exit velocity bands:
This chart is pretty similar to the one I generated for the team’s offense last week. It’s not as drastic, however. The club’s bats were hurt more than the team’s pitchers benefited on batted balls north of 100 MPH. Moreover, while pitchers were hurt by batted balls in the 95 to 99 MPH range, batters did not experience the added distance in that range.
Here are how individual pitchers fared:
A mixed bag. Some pitchers did better at home (Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, and Chad Green among others). Others weren’t so fortunate (Michael King, Aroldis Chapman, Jonathan Loáisiga). This isn’t nearly as consistent as it was for hitters, where only Gary Sánchez and Giancarlo Stanton hit balls further at Yankee Stadium than elsewhere.
Here’s where I’ll add a new hypothesis. Perhaps fly ball prone pitchers experienced more benefits than sinkerballers in The Bronx thanks to the new ball. After all, Taillon, Cole, and Green love to throw their four-seamers up, which generates plenty of balls in the air. Check out Andrew Heaney too. Then, turn to some of the guys who rely more on two-seamers or sinkers. King, Loáisiga, and Corey Kluber are a few guys who stand out as pitchers hurt at home.
Of course, there are exceptions to my theory. Wandy Peralta had the highest ground ball to fly ball ratio on the team, and he bucks the trend. Nestor Cortes had one of the highest fly ball rates on the club and he didn’t benefit in the way that Taillon or Cole did.
A lot of what I have presented thus far may seem to dispel the notion that MLB shipped the deadened ball to Yankee Stadium in 2021. After all, the data is a bit more mixed for pitchers than hitters, even if there is some overlap. However, I do have a thought on why the pitcher data looks a bit different than the hitter data. It’s yet another theory that I’m unsure how to support, but I think it allows for speculation about the ball used at Yankee Stadium 21 to remain open.
Maybe the variance among Yankees’ pitchers as compared to the bats is due to the composition of both groups. The Bombers’ lineup is pretty uniform: they have a bunch of guys swinging for the fences. Meanwhile, the team’s pitchers come in different shapes and forms. There are power pitchers, sinker ballers, funky arm slots, and more. Perhaps if the pitching staff was exclusively fly ball guys, we’d see distance disparities much more consistently team-wide. Hey, it’s a thought, but that’s not all.
One more thing that perhaps I should have looked at sooner: Statcast provides various park factors, including one that compares flight distance controlled for exit velocity, launch angle, and direction. In particular, it does this for pulled balls hit 90 MPH or harder at a launch angle between 24 and 32 degrees.
Yankee Stadium, which I’ve shown in the data callout in the chart above, has consistently shortened distance under for years. Some seasons less than others, though there was a sharp decrease from 2020 to 2021. That alone lends to some intrigue. Yes, Yankee Stadium has suppressed distances in recent years, but it’s never experienced such a stark swing year-over-year. Especially in the negative direction, which adds some fuel to the fire (even if it may be some confirmation bias). It would make sense that distance would decrease significantly, relative to other stadiums, if more (or exclusively) new spec balls were sent to The Bronx.
While the team’s pitcher data isn’t as convincing regarding which ball was used at Yankee Stadium, it’s difficult to analyze in this context. The Yankees have a greater variety of pitcher archetypes compared to the position players the team fields. As such, perhaps it’s no surprise the pitcher data isn’t as consistent. Meanwhile, Statcast park factors show a pretty substantial change from 2020 to 2021 in terms of distance at Yankee Stadium vs. elsewhere, and that accounts for players leaguewide.
All told, data for one team can’t prove that MLB conspired to send the new spec balls to Yankee Stadium. I think the data I’ve presented furthers speculation about what MLB did, and that’s undeniably the league’s fault. Their lack of communication, along with inconsistent explanations for their manufacturing process, allow for such inquiries. At this point, given Davis’ reporting, it’s difficult to give the league the benefit of the doubt. As a result, it seems very possible that the Yankees played with the deadened ball at home and a mix on the road.