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:
|Pitcher||Whiff Rate (%)|
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.
Want to see an at-bat that exemplified the Yankees’ approach? Look no further than Kyle Higashioka! He spit on two breaking balls, one in the zone and one just below it, before jumping on a fastball:
Or, Clint Frazier laying off one before also jumping on the heat:
Going back to the Wild Card series: Bieber threw 45 breakers and all but 13 were out of the zone. The Yankees hacked at 11 of those 32 out of zone offerings, which was well below the 43.5 percent chase rate Bieber had gotten on that type of pitch during the regular season. The Bombers didn’t have much success against his curve in the strike zone (1-for-6 with an infield single), but that didn’t matter. They didn’t let Bieber beat them with his hook.
There were a couple of at-bats against Bieber stand out. Here’s Luke Voit laying off some sliders before eventually pouncing on a hanger:
Also: Gleyber Torres’s in the fifth. He fell behind 0-2 after taking two fastballs. Bieber looked to put him away with curveballs. Here’s the matchup after the count reached 0-2:
The Yankees will need to maintain this disciplined approach tonight against Glasnow, who the team faced three times in the regular season. His best was August 31st when he threw six shutout innings and struck out nine. Here was his curveball pitch chart from that game:
He got 9 whiffs on 12 swings against the pitch that day. Suffice to say that the Yankees can’t be swing-happy against it like that again. However, the lineup that day included Mike Ford, Mike Tauchman, and Jordy Mercer. Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Gleyber Torres were absent. It won’t be as easy for Glasnow this time around.
On August 19th, Glasnow struck out 8 Yankees and allowed 2 runs in 5 2/3 innings. This lineup didn’t have LeMahieu, Judge, or Stanton. But this time, Glasnow threw his curve in the zone a lot and the Bombers struggled. They were extremely patient against it, only swinging 9 times, but they also whiffed on 6 and fouled off 2.
The Yankees knocked around Glasnow on August 8th with a pretty full lineup. Luke Voit and Aaron Hicks sat in favor of Ford (who homered off Glasnow) and Tauchman. The Yankees were really patient against his yakker in that game too: they swung just 7 times on 22 offerings and whiffed thrice.
Typically, Glasnow’s curveball pitch chart is much more like his 8/31 start against New York. In the regular season, Glasnow threw 67.8 percent of his curveballs out of the strike zone and got a 29.5 percent chase rate on them. He really has a hard time throwing it for a strike, so if the Yankees can maintain their patience against breaking balls like they have this postseason, they should be able to wait Glasnow out.
Before I wrap this up, I want to note how the Yankees’ approach against breaking balls really counters the narrative that the team has a bunch of hitters who flail at curveballs and sliders off the plate. Folks whine a whole lot whenever Stanton or Gary Sánchez chase balls in the dirt, but this team as a whole tend to do a very good job not getting themselves out on bad pitches. Here are some numbers to chew on:
|Metric vs. Breaking Pitches||NYY||MLB|
|Swing Rate (%)||41.2||43.8|
|Chase Rate (%)||24.6||30.1|
I’ll admit that it surprised me to see the Yankees do so well against breaking balls during the regular season. It’s also worth noting that the Yankees’ xwOBA against fastballs was .374 (vs. league average .342), so this fastball-hunting approach has been a year-long strategy. Maybe the (baseball) universe is simply correcting itself now that we’re seeing the Yankees have some overall offensive success.
In the limited postseason sample size, the Bombers are going after even fewer breaking balls (38.1 percent) than the regular season. This in spite of seeing more out-of-zone curveballs and sliders (60.5 percent). They’re chasing a little more (26 percent), but keep in mind that opposing pitcher quality is better.
It’s a lot of fun to see this offense at full strength and humming for the first time since late July/early August. Now, maintaining a 10 runs scored per game is unsustainable, but this approach is undoubtedly effective. Why try to hit breaking balls when the chance of success is low anyway? This selective approach and outstanding pitch recognition is working. The team is bound to see opposing pitchers adjust, but I’d have to think such an adjustment would only be in the Yankees’ favor. More fastballs? Yes, please. Again, as long as the Bombers offense maintains this elite level of discipline, it’s going to be next to impossible to stop them.