How three Yankees pitchers made adjustments in 2019, and what those tweaks mean for 2020 and beyond
Zack Britton, James Paxton, and Masahiro Tanaka all made changes on the fly last year
In the year 2020, the difference between the best and worst teams is not necessarily spending big on free agents or making splashy trades. The best teams acquire players on the cheap and help them take their game to the next level. The Dodgers and Max Muncy are a great example. So are the Astros and Gerrit Cole. Cole didn't reach his ceiling until Houston tweaked his pitch selection.
Last season three prominent Yankees pitchers, all of whom are facing free agency this coming offseason, made adjustments on the fly and had more success down the stretch. Those adjustments helped the Yankees on the field last year and also changed each pitcher's long-term outlook. They are not the pitchers they were even 12 months ago. Changes have been made.
Every week we're going to break down a handful of MLB players who share a common theme and what it means going forward. This week we're going to examine those three Yankees pitchers, the adjustments they made last season, and how those adjustments could impact their upcoming free agencies. Let's get to it.
The Yankees, perhaps moreso than any other team, value a deep bullpen and they gave Zack Britton closer money to serve as Aroldis Chapman's primary setup man last offseason. He was excellent, pitching to a 1.91 ERA with MLB's best ground ball rate (77.2 percent) in 61 1/3 innings. The 2019 launch angle leaderboard is comical (min. 150 balls in play):
- Zack Britton: -8.9 degrees
- Aaron Bummer: -3.4 degrees
- Framber Valdez: -1.0 degrees
- T.J. McFarland: -0.3 degrees
- Adam Kolarek: -0.1 degrees
MLB Average: 16.2 degrees (ideal launch angle for a hitter is 10-30 degrees)
Despite the overall success and extreme ground ball tendencies, Britton did exhibit some red flags last year. He walked 13.1 percent of the batters he faced, the second straight season he set a new career high walk rate, and his 21.6 percent strikeout rate was well below the 30.2 percent strikeout rate he ran during his peak from 2015-16. Britton lived and died with the ground ball.
Following a particularly scary stretch at midseason — Britton issued 12 walks against only four strikeouts during a 17-inning stretch spanning May 20 to July 13 — Britton huddled up with pitching coach Larry Rothschild and New York's analytics group, and made some adjustments. Specifically, he scaled back on his trademark sinker and started throwing more breaking balls.
Britton threw exactly 100 curveballs from July 1 through the end of the postseason last year. He had never thrown more than 96 curveballs in an entire season from 2014-18. Britton is not just throwing more curveballs though. He's throwing more curveballs early in the count, and using the pitch to either get ahead on hitters or coax a quick ground ball.
Prior to the All-Star break last season the sinker happy version of Britton struck out only 17.2 percent of batters faced with a stellar 76.9 percent ground ball rate. Once he started incorporating more curveballs, his strikeout rate jumped to 28.7 percent in the second half, and his ground ball rate remained elite at 77.8 percent. Britton changed the scouting report and thrived.
For all intents and purposes, Britton was a one-trick pony with the Orioles. It was a great one trick — he might have the best sinker since peak Kevin Brown — but it was still one trick. Britton still has that great sinker, but now he's supplementing it with curveballs, which allowed him to remain excellent in 2019, his age-31 season. There's more reason to believe in his longevity now.
Britton's contract is unusual. After this season the Yankees must decide whether to exercise what amounts to a two-year club option worth $27 million. If they decline the two-year club option, Britton can exercise a one-year player option worth $13 million. We don't know how the shutdown and its financial impact will affect decision-making yet, but I'd bet on the Yankees picking up the option.
Either way, Britton made an adjustment last season and evolved as a pitcher. He'll always rely heavily on his sinker, that's his bread and butter, but it is no longer his only weapon. He used his curveball with confidence late last season and have hitters something else to think about. The more weapons in a pitcher's arsenal, the more likely it is he remains effective into his mid-30s.
To date, there have been two constants in James Paxton's career: he gets hurt a lot and he's really good when healthy. Paxton is currently working his way back from February back surgery — had the season started on time, it would've been his eighth stint on the injured list since 2016 — and is expected to return in May or June. He could be ready for Opening Day, whenever that is.
Paxton threw 150 2/3 innings with a 3.82 ERA and 186 strikeouts last season — that ERA is 16 percent better than average once adjusting for ballpark and other run-scoring environment factors (i.e. the juiced ball) — and, in parts of seven big-league seasons, he has a 3.50 ERA in 131 starts. His 26.5 career percent strikeout rate is comfortably above-average even in this strikeout-happy era.
On July 26 of last year, the Red Sox hammered Paxton for seven runs and four homers in four innings. That came five days after he allowed seven runs (four earned) in 3 1/3 innings against the Rockies. Paxton exited Fenway Park that night with a 4.72 ERA, much worse than his career average and much worse than the Yankees were expecting when they acquired him from the Mariners.
Paxton went back to the drawing board after getting roughed up by the Red Sox. He's always had a great fastball — his upper-90s heater generates a ton of swings and misses — but he became too predictable. Hitters were sitting fastball and getting it more often than not. Following that outing in Boston, Paxton emphasized his curveball, a pitch that plays well off his fastball.
James Paxton, Fastball/Knuckle Curve, Overlay. pic.twitter.com/sQkn2XaMMV
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 29, 2019
In his next start following the disaster at Fenway Park, Paxton held those same Red Sox to two runs in six innings. In his final 11 regular season starts he pitched to a 2.51 ERA and held hitters to a .177/.248/.298 batting line against. Paxton became the first Yankee to win 10 consecutive starts since Ron Guidry won 11 straight in 1979, and he started Game 1 of the ALDS.
Paxton threw 274 curveballs in August and September, more than he threw in the first four months of the season combined (220). The uptick in curveballs and decline in fastball usage late last season in pretty easy to spot:
"He's got a purpose when he's pitching. He's fun to catch," backup catcher Austin Romine said in September. "He stays aggressive. When he mixes in his curveballs and sliders, he kind of keeps guys off-balance. He's known predominantly as a fastball guy, so guys are selling out. That splits the plate up a little bit and guys can't guess as easily."
Paxton is entering his free agent season at the wrong time. He's already hurt, and back surgery isn't something teams will chalk up to bad luck. It's not like a pulled hamstring, you know? The shutdown and likely shortened season also means Paxton won't have as much time to not only show he's healthy and effective, but also show the new curveball happy approach is here to stay.
The bet here is Paxton is still able to secure a multi-year contract this winter — starting pitching is always in demand — though not a top-dollar contract given the back injury and financial damage done by the coronavirus shutdown. Whichever team signs Paxton will get a pitcher with injury concerns, no doubt, but also a pitcher with considerable upside, especially following last year's adjustment.
The Yankees tend to build their pitching staff around power arms — their team 93.1 mph average fastball velocity was sixth highest in baseball last year — and that makes Masahiro Tanaka an outlier. He is the epitome of the "pitcher not a thrower" cliche, someone who outsmarts hitters with a deep repertoire rather than overpowers them with power stuff.
In addition to leading to a record home run surge, last year's baseball also robbed Tanaka of his trademark splitter. He has said the ball was too slick and the seams too low to grip the pitch properly, so, at midseason, Tanaka developed a new splitter grip. That is not something pitchers do lightly, change the grip on their signature pitch. From Dan Martin of the New York Post:
"I've always, up to this point, tried to stick with the grip that I've always used for the splitter and made small adjustments in order to get the movement that I want,'' Tanaka told The Post through an interpreter. "You get good results and bad results and the difference between the two are so big. When it's good, it's really good, but when it's bad, obviously, it's been very bad. I thought I needed to make a different type adjustment here. That's the biggest reason I went to something as drastic as changing the grip."
The Red Sox bludgeoned Tanaka for 12 runs in 3 1/3 innings on July 25 last year. Tanaka changed his splitter grip after that. In 21 starts with the old grip, opponents hit .279 with a .469 slugging percentage against the splitter. Their swing-and-miss rate was 17.3 percent. With the new grip, it was a .234 average and a .330 slugging percentage, and a 21.9 percent swing-and-miss rate.
Changing his splitter grip is not the only adjustment Tanaka made last season. Unlike Britton and Paxton, who had success with more breaking balls, Tanaka threw more fastballs. He has long been the sport's preeminent anti-fastball pitcher — Tanaka threw 35.6 percent fastballs from 2016-18, easily the fewest in baseball — but that trend is starting to reverse:
Tanaka is zigging while everyone else zags. Pitchers are collectively throwing fewer fastballs these days and Tanaka took it to the extreme in recent years. Now he's throwing more fastballs to get hitters off his splitter, and the result was a solid 3.79 ERA in 11 games following that 12-run disaster at Fenway Park, plus more postseason excellence.
This is the final season of Tanaka's seven-year, $155 million contract, and while he will undoubtedly have to take a pay cut with his next contract, the 31-year-old is a good bet to remain effective as he ages. He relies on command and pitchability, not velocity, and he's shown he has the aptitude to make adjustments on the fly. That matters when evaluating a pitcher's long-term future.