Happy Wednesday, everyone. The Yankees have won 4 of their last 6 games and they look like they’re starting to right the ship a bit. There are still a few too many mistakes – the base running errors make me want to tear my hair out – but I’m encouraged. Let’s hope the Yankees take it to Baltimore tonight and build on Corey Kluber’s great start last night. That would be a good way to keep the momentum going.
Before then though, here are some thoughts about the way the Yankees are performing so far. Let’s get right to ’em.
1. State of the Bullpen: The Yankees bullpen has been exceptional from top to bottom so far in 2021. If the offense was more consistent, then the bullpen would be the big Yankee story of the season. They have been worth nearly a full win more than the next best relief corps (2.0 fWAR vs. next-best Boston’s 1.3) and rank near the top of the league in nearly every important category. To wit:
- WHIP: 0.97 (1st)
- BAA: .181 (2nd)
- ERA: 2.28 (2nd)
- FIP: 2.99 (2nd)
- Strikeout Rate: 29.1% (2nd)
- WPA: 2.30 (2nd)
- Walk Rate: 7.9% (4th)
It’s been a real dominant showing, with just a few blips on the radar. The only real concern at this point is workload. They’ve thrown the third-most innings (94.2) in the league in the early going. To be fair, the volume makes their success even more impressive, but it is also slightly concerning – the bullpen is a team strength, and it’s important for the arms not to get burnt out in the early stages of the season. We’ve seen what happens when arms are gassed for October. It’s not fun.
I think it should get better as the starters consistently deliver a little bit more length – heavy bullpen reliance was to be expected with Jameson Taillon and Corey Kluber at this stage of their buildup – and Zack Britton returns. Still, I suspect the Yankees are thinking about it. It’s definitely why they moved Mike Tauchman to the Giants for Wandy Peralta.
Peralta, a 29-year-old lefty, has not had a ton of success at the MLB level (4.72 ERA, 4.84 FIP) but will be a good fit for the Yankees. Jaime will have a more in-depth breakdown in a bit, but the long-and-short of it is that he has consistently good velocity and induces a lot of soft contact. He also has a MiLB option, which means he can join the Scranton Shuffle. I read this trade as the Yankees taking a strength (outfield depth) and turning it into additional bullpen depth to protect their flank a little bit. I am good with that, even if the Yankees can’t “unlock” Peralta to get his performance to match his peripherals. There are enough low-leverage innings to go around, and the Yanks need arms to fill them. Anything better than that is gravy.
2. Loaisiga’s New Changeup Usage: I want to get a little bit more specific on one reason why the Yankee bullpen has been so effective: the rise of my son, Jonathan Loaisiga. It is surely no surprise to any VF314 reader that I am absolutely delighted with the way that Loaisiga is pitching so far. He looks like the dominant back-end bullpen arm that we all envisioned a year or two ago, owning a 1.23 ERA (2.60 FIP) with a 28.6% strikeout rate against a measly 3.6% walk rate. Loaisiga doesn’t look like a fluke, either: he is overpowering batters.
A big reason why might be his new pitch usage. Like many Yankees, Loaisiga is increasingly reliant on his changeup. Here is his usage of the pitch, year-over-year:
- 2018: 13.1%
- 2019: 12.9%
- 2020: 15.2%
- 2021: 25.3%
That’s definitely a noticeable jump. It was a 25% increase from 2019 to 2020 and a 66% increase from 2020 to 2021. Loaisiga has more than doubled his usage of the pitch since Matt Blake joined the staff, and it’s not difficult to see why. Check out this offering, which came against Ozzie Albies last week in the Bronx:
Nasty. Just nasty. A changeup makes a lot of sense for Loaisiga, too. His talent has always been there, and the stuff has always been electric. At the same time, it’s often looked like batters were sitting dead-red on his fastball in years past. Velocity is great, but it also has to be deceptive, and it didn’t often look like Loaisiga was fooling many batters. This year, though, that’s very much not the case. I suspect the changeup is why. His velocity is up overall – he’s averaging over 97 mph on his fastballs – and that lends itself well to a new change.
Batters are just not able to sit back and wait for the fastball now, which adds a level of deception to his arsenal. Most importantly, as is crucial for Loaisiga generally, he is locating the pitch. Here is a heat map of his changeup locations so far in 2021:
That will do. Pretty much perfect location on a changeup if you ask me. It also helps explain why batters are hitting just .125 against the offering and whiffing against it on 44% of their swings. Location is king. I could say a lot more about why Loaisiga is dominating this year, and I am sure I will at some point. For now, though, this is worth monitoring. He’s using his changeup a ton more now and having success with it. I suspect it has a lot to do with his success overall this season. Let’s hope he can keep it up.
3. The Great Catcher Debate of 2021: I was hoping that Gary Sánchez was going to come out of the gate red hot and put to rest any doubts about his productivity. It sure seemed like that was going to be the case, too. Through the first two weeks of the season, the Kraken was hitting .265/.375/.471 (145 wRC+) with a 12% walk rate against a 17% strikeout rate. That was the sort of start he needed. Unfortunately, it did not last. In the just under two weeks since, he is hitting an incredible .048/.200/.048 (-10 wRC+). His walks have stayed constant, but his strikeouts have jumped up to 33%. He looks lost at the plate. This says it all:
While there is a bit of small sample size theatre here, this is really a microcosm of Gary’s career. When he looks good, he is not just an elite hitting catcher – he’s an elite hitter period. When he looks bad, he is not just slumping – he is one of the worst hitters in the league. It’s no wonder that the guy is polarizing.
Enter Kyle Higashioka, whom Aaron Boone says will be getting a lot more playing time lately. Honestly, he’s earned it. You might expect me to groan about this, but I won’t. I’ve been Gary’s biggest defender for years now. At the same time, he looks horrible right now, Higashioka very much does not, and the Yankees need as much offense as they can get at present. This just makes sense.
Over his last 77 plate appearances (since the start of 2020), Higgy is hitting .274/.312/.644 (159 wRC+). I think it’s a bit of a mirage – the guy cannot walk – but he looks confident at the plate, he’s hitting for power, and he’s just the better option right now. I have no problem letting the dude hit until he doesn’t and letting the Yankees figuring it out from there.
Finally, hitting is not the only consideration when it comes to catching, obviously. Gary has always had a good reputation for his game calling, so I have no reason to think that’s not true. Higashioka is clearly no slouch in that department either, and he’s an elite defensive catcher. According to Baseball Prospectus’ catching stats, Higgy has been the 5th best pitch framer in all of baseball so far in 2021. Gary, on the other hand, is 52nd out of 67. Higgy has also been the 5th best defensive catcher overall in baseball, taking into account stolen bases, passed balls/wild pitches, and framing. Sánchez ranks 57th.
I sure hope that Gary can turn it around. I really do. I’ve always loved him, and I root extremely hard for the guy. Baseball isn’t about playing favorites, though. Higashioka has been performing like an elite player and Gary has not. He should absolutely play more and I’m glad to see the Yankees take that step. They need production and Higgy is giving it. I suspect we’ll see about a 50/50 split in playing time for the next few weeks and they’ll evaluate from there. Seems right to me. (The Yankees could also use Giancarlo Stanton in left every now and then to give Gary a few DH at-bats, but that’s a story for another day.)
4. Judge’s Quietly Good Season: Aaron Judge is slipping under the radar a bit, which is what he does. Have the Yankees ever had a more quietly great superstar? I know everyone thinks he is good, but I am still not convinced people realize just how good he is. Let’s play a game, and don’t cheat. Before you read on, why don’t you try to guess what Judge’s triple slash line is.
Ready? It’s .263/.385/.500 (154 wRC+). Doesn’t feel like it, right? That’s because his .500 slugging percentage would be the lowest of his career right now, by a lot, if it held over the season. The power hasn’t been there in the way that we’re used to. (The missile home run he torched last night, on the other hand, might suggest it’ll be here soon.) And because Judge has a reputation for being a masher and a masher alone, it sort of feels like he is struggling when he’s not. He’s been one of the best hitters in baseball, all without really hitting his power stride. And that should come soon, too. I mean:
The odd thing is that his defense hasn’t been great this year and that’s an anomaly for him. Honestly, though, it’s pretty early in the season and I feel like defensive metrics need a bit more time before we can use them properly for a season. So we’ll check back in on that soon.
Anyway, here’s another fun thing about Judge that I suspect you didn’t realize: he is striking out less in 2021 than he ever has in his career. Don’t believe me? Check it out:
His strikeout rates, in fact, have been declining over the last two years. He will always strike out a ton, of course, but it often feels like Judge strikes out all of the time. The reality is that he is striking out less than he ever has (2016 does not count). There’s a reason why, too:
He’s started making considerably more contact on balls out of the zone this season. Is this sustainable? Probably not. It’s an insane jump for Judge year-over-year, and it’s only been about a month. But it’s definitely worth watching. It isn’t like Judge is wildly overperforming the league average here, either. He’s right at it, and this was it is an area where Judge clearly stood to improve. It may reduce his strikeout rates and help him take his offensive production to a different level. It’s too early to say, but I think we should keep our eye on this.
Aaron Judge, man. He is always full of surprises.