Maybe you’ve noticed that Masahiro Tanaka is a little different these days. His recent good stretch has coincided with a trend we noticed a while back: he’s not really throwing the fastball any more. He’s not alone on the Yankees — it looks like it’s a team-wide phenomenon. But is it working for every Yankee?
Since June 23, Tanaka has a 2.95 ERA with a 28% strikeout rate and a 5% walk rate. He’s been great. He’s also thrown the fastball just 27.4% of the time. The only pitcher with 30 innings in the second half who’s thrown fewer fastballs is knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
The weird thing is, Tanaka has replaced those fastballs with sliders, which have given up the highest fly-ball and home-run rates of his non-fastballs. He hangs them sometimes. And his sinker gets average whiff and ground-ball rates. It’s not a bad pitch.
In his case, the issue may not be the quality of the fastball. Take a look at the Yankees, in general. They rank last in the league in fastball percentage, by a wide margin. They also have the best fastball velocity in the league. It really stands out if you put team fastball velocity against team fastball usage:
The Yankees are the red dot in the upper left-hand corner. Tanaka’s teammates are also choosing breaking and offspeed pitches over fastballs in bulk. Despite throwing high-velo fastballs.
This is a phenomenon that Tom Verducci examined for SI earlier this year. Verducci noted that the batting average on fastballs is higher than it is for other pitches. He also quoted pitching coach Larry Rotschild:
“Fastballs get hit,” Rothschild said. “It’s amazing to me to see guys throwing in the upper 90s and they get hit. I don’t know how these guys do it. That’s how good major league hitters are. They have adjusted to velocity. To hit upper 90s, you have to gear up for upper 90s. So hitters are going up there to gear up for velocity. And when they do that, they can hit it no matter how hard you throw.
“The other thing is fastball command. If you don’t have great command with your fastball, these hitters are so good they’re going to hit it. Not every pitcher has great fastball command.”
You could say it’s working for Tanaka — and Luis Severino (29th of 104 in fastball usage), for sure. The staff in general seems to be doing fine, too. The Yankees have the third-best overall pitching staff by Wins Above Replacement and the third-lowest batting average on balls in play.
But what about the newest Yankees? Jaime Garcia and Tommy Kahnle have both come to the team and have dropped their fastball usage rapidly — by about 20 percentage points so far since arriving in New York. Both have struggled relative to their earlier performance. Is the approach failing them?
One thing you’ll notice is that both pitchers have seen their walk rates go up and their strikeout rates go down. That’s not just luck. It may be a simple reason: the fastball is their best pitch.
Kahnle’s regression isn’t huge, as his walk rate has increased from 5.0% with the White Sox to 6.8% with the Yankees. But his strikeout and ground-ball rates have gone the wrong way, and it may be because his fastball is a ball 29% less often than his slider. The whiff rate on Kahnle’s fastball is three times the league average. The whiff rate on his slider is 1.3 times better than league average.
As for Garcia, sure, the slider gets more whiffs than his sinker, so you could see the appeal of the Yankee approach, maybe. That slider is also a ball 10% more often than his sinker, a ground ball 70% less often, and a home run more than twice as often this year.
Subjectively, Garcia relies on cutting up, chopping, and manipulating his fastball to make things work. He’s previously spoken to me about the importance of ground balls:
One of the ways that Garcia achieves these grounders is by having an array of fastballs. “I do different things with them,” Garcia said of his hard stuff. “A four-seamer that sometimes cuts and I can make it move a little bit, and the same thing with the sinker, some move a little bit more than others.”
You’d have to go back to 2012 to get a ground-ball rate worse than the one he’s produced so far with the Yankees, and he hasn’t gotten a corresponding boost to either his whiffs or strikeouts.
All the way back in May, I advocated that a pitcher do what Tanaka has essentially done: throw 20% fastballs. It’s worked for Tanaka since, though he wasn’t on my list.
But even as I advocated for the approach, I set up benchmarks: the pitcher should probably be struggling, he should have an iffy fastball, and he should have good command of his breaking ball.
I’m not sure those things are true for every pitcher on the Yankees’ staff. To be fair, they’re not all dropping to 20% fastballs; it’s a much more muted 40%. Still, it’s rare that a uniform approach works for every pitcher on a single staff, and this approach may be failing Garcia and Kahnle.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.