Jordan Montgomery and maximizing deception

(Jamie Squire/Getty)
(Jamie Squire/Getty)

A few years ago the Yankees had a clear preference for physically huge power pitchers. Peak CC Sabathia was basically the perfect Yankees pitcher. He’s enormous and he had a big fastball and a wipeout breaking ball, allowing him to rack up strikeouts and limit walks. Dellin Betances is another big power pitcher. Same with Michael Pineda, who the Yankees more or less hoped would develop into a right-handed version of peak Sabathia.

The Yankees have started to open their minds a bit and pursue different types of pitchers. Masahiro Tanaka is a master craftsman. Sonny Gray is a 5-foot-10 righty who will throw the kitchen sink at you. Jordan Montgomery is a big dude (6-foot-6) like Sabathia and Betances and Pineda, but he’s more of a command and control guy than a power pitcher. He uses his deep arsenal to change speeds, change eye levels, and keep hitters off balance.

Montgomery was the best rookie pitcher in baseball this season, at least according to fWAR, and much of his success was tied to deception. It started with that deep arsenal. Here is his pitch selection throughout the season:

jordan-montgomery-pitch-selection

Montgomery abandoned his slider a bit in June and July, otherwise he never threw any pitch less than 12% of the time in a single month. Five pitches used regularly. Not many veteran pitchers do that. Montgomery did it as a rookie, and he did it very effectively.

Using five different pitches regularly is not necessary to be considered a command and control pitcher, nor is having five pitches necessary to have deception, at least in the traditional baseball sense of the term. When we talk about deception, we’re referring to hiding the baseball and making it more difficult to pick up. Some pitchers turn their backs during their delivery. Others have a herky jerky delivery. Something like that usually qualifies as deception.

In Montgomery’s case, he creates deception with his sky high release point and the whole “tunneling” phenomenon, the idea that each pitch looks the same as it travels toward the plate, before breaking in different directions at the last moment. This old GIF by Drew Sheppard from back when Matt Harvey was still good is a personal favorite. It’s a fastball and a slider, and you can see how the pitches look the same until right before reaching the plate.

matt-harvey-tunneling

Pretty neat, huh? One of Montgomery’s strengths is tunneling his wide array of pitches similar to the Harvey GIF, at least according to the relatively new tunneling numbers at Baseball Prospectus. These stats measure the distance between sets of back-to-back pitches at various points along the pitch’s flight, and they do it thousands of times across the season, for every pitch the pitcher throws. Here is the 2017 release point differential leaderboard:

  1. Jon Lester: 1.61 inches
  2. Stephen Strasburg: 1.76 inches
  3. Kyle Hendricks: 1.77 inches
  4. Alex Cobb: 1.79 inches
  5. J.A. Happ: 1.80 inches
  6. Robert Gsellman: 1.88 inches
  7. Jordan Montgomery: 1.88 inches
    (MLB average: 2.4 inches)

Long story short, these numbers are telling us these pitchers release their pitches from nearly the same spot each time. They have tight and consistent release points. Everything comes out of their hand from the same place, so, for example, you can’t tell the pitcher is throwing a slider because he drops down a bit. Here is a plot of Montgomery’s release points, just to drive home the point:

jordan-montgomery-release-points

Montgomery’s 1.88 inch release differential is easily the lowest among New York’s starters. Pineda was second at 2.11 inches. Tanaka was next at 2.26 inches. Severino had the rotation’s largest release differential at 3.13 inches this season. Here’s what his release points looked like, for reference:

luis-severino-release-points

That’s a much larger blob than Montgomery’s. Having a tight, consistent release point is a good thing, but having a more spread out release point isn’t automatically bad. I mean, Severino’s release differential was one of the largest in baseball this year, and he was a top ten starter. Clayton Kershaw’s release differential (3.22 inches) is even larger than Severino’s and he’s pretty good at this whole pitching thing.

The release point is only one piece of the tunneling equation though. Remember the Harvey GIF? The batter’s brain is reading fastball and telling his arms to start swinging before the slider really starts to slide. The more your pitches look the same as they approach the plate, the less time the hitter has to react. To measure this, Baseball Prospectus has a release/tunnel differential ratio stat. Here’s their explanation:

Release:Tunnel Ratio – This stat shows us the ratio of a pitcher’s release differential to their tunnel differential. Pitchers with smaller Release:Tunnel Ratios have smaller differentiation between pitches through the tunnel point, making it more difficult for opposing hitters to distinguish them in theory.

The tunnel point is set at 23.8 feet from home plate, which, according to Baseball Prospectus, is “the decision-making point based on 175 milliseconds and a league-average fastball.” Okie dokie. How tight is the pitcher’s release point? How close together are his pitches at the tunnel point? Compare those two and you get the release/tunnel ratio. The smaller the number, the better. Here’s the release/tunnel ratio leaderboard:

  1. Alex Cobb: 0.161
  2. Jon Lester: 0.170
  3. Jordan Montgomery: 0.175
  4. Kyle Hendricks: 0.182
  5. Derek Holland: 0.182

Montgomery releases everything close together and the pitches stay close together on their path to the plate. And when you’re throwing five different pitches regularly, the hitter has basically no idea what’s coming, at least when Montgomery executes properly. Mistake pitches happen. But, better than nearly every other starter out there, Montgomery tunnels his pitches consistently.

I know there’s a lot of scary jargon in here like release differential and tunnel points and all that. In plain English, this all means Montgomery creates deception with his ability to keep his pitches close together for as long as possible as they travel toward the plate. He’s throwing one of five pitches at you, and you don’t know whether you’re getting the four-seamer or sinker or curveball or slider or changeup until the pitch is more than halfway to the plate. Imagine how hard it is to hit like that?

There is definitely something to be said for having an overpowering fastball and a wicked breaking ball like Severino, tunnel points be damned. Montgomery doesn’t have the natural gifts to be that type of pitcher though. He’s 6-foot-6 and he releases the ball from way up here … *holds hand far above head* … and he uses his ability to make his five pitches look the same to deceive hitters. Big overpowering lefties like peak Sabathia are pretty great. Deception guys like Montgomery can be pretty good too.

Domingo German could be the next impact arm to come out of the farm system

(Adam Glanzman/Getty)
(Adam Glanzman/Getty)

Three offseasons ago the Yankees swung a five-player trade with the Marlins that, very clearly, they lost. David Phelps out-pitched Nathan Eovaldi and Martin Prado out-position playered Garrett Jones (by a lot). In extremely oversimplified terms, the Yankees traded away +6.4 WAR and received +3.2 WAR. It happens. You win some and you lose some.

The fifth player in that five-player trade was right-hander Domingo German, a then borderline top 100 prospect and a 2014 Futures Gamer who needed Tommy John surgery in his very first Spring Training with the Yankees. He missed the entire 2015 season and the first half of the 2016 season. Not great. Phelps and Prado outplayed Eovaldi and Jones, and the prospect the Yankees received blew out his elbow immediately.

German, now 25, returned with his new elbow last June and threw 49.2 minor league innings with a 3.08 ERA (3.43 FIP). The Yankees saw enough to re-add German to the 40-man roster last offseason — they pulled the non-tender/re-sign trick with him two offseasons ago to clear a 40-man spot while he rehabbed — and this season he threw 109.1 minor league innings with a 2.88 ERA (3.29 FIP). New elbow test: passed.

The Yankees shuttled German in and out of the bullpen several times this year — he also spent a lot of time on the roster as the seldom used eighth reliever, so much so that he accrued 71 days of service time while making only seven appearances — and in those stints he allowed six runs (five earned) in 14 innings. German threw 2.2 scoreless innings in his big league debut on June 11th …

… and he also struck out four in two dominant innings against the Twins on September 20th. The good news: German struck out 18 of 62 batters faced (29.0%) and generated a ground ball on 18 of 33 balls in play (54.5%). The bad news: he walked nine of those 62 batters (14.5%). Young pitchers walk guys. It’s what they do. Rookie jitters are real.

The 29.0% strikeout rate and 54.5% ground ball rate come in a super small sample size, of course, though they do fit German’s profile. He was touted as a potential strikeout/ground ball guy while in the minors thanks to a lively fastball, a quality changeup, and an improving curveball. From Baseball America’s pre-2015 scouting report (subs. req’d):

He has an easy delivery he repeats well to go with a loose, live arm that produces above average life on a heavy sinking fastball that sits in the 91-96 mph range and touches 97. He got his share of ground balls with his fastball and with his low-80s changeup, a pitch he’s shown he knows how to use and that flashes average potential. German throws his slurvy curveball with low-80s power and 10-to-4 break.

That is more or less what we saw this summer, except German’s fastball averaged 95.9 mph and topped out at 99.5 mph, so he’s throwing harder now than he did prior to Tommy John surgery. That’s not that uncommon. The Tommy John rehab is often more intense than the pitcher’s usual workout routine, so they come back throwing harder. Also, the Yankees have a thing for getting guys to add velocity.

Moreso than the velocity, German stood out for his spin rates this season, particularly with his fastball. Nearly 600 pitchers (576, to be exact) threw at least 50 fastballs in 2017. Here is the average fastball spin rate leaderboard:

  1. Carl Edwards Jr., Cubs: 2,677 rpm
  2. Jose Leclerc, Rangers: 2,629 rpm
  3. Nik Turley, Twins: 2,614 rpm
  4. Mike Minor, Royals: 2,604 rpm
  5. Domingo German, Yankees: 2,590 rpm
    (MLB average: 2,255 rpm)

Now, spin rate is not everything. It’s not the secret to getting outs. It’s one tool in the shed. It’s like velocity. You can’t succeed on it alone, but having it sure helps. And you know whether someone has it relatively quickly. You know whether someone has big time velocity after only a few innings. Same with spin rate. You don’t need a big sample to know it’s in there.

German showed great velocity and elite spin with his fastball during his brief MLB cameo, and that’s a good thing. A great fastball can take you a long way. Just look at Chad Green. If nothing else, the fastball is a reason to give German a longer look going forward. Add in the promising curveball and changeup — German had the highest average changeup spin rate in baseball this season (2,447 rpm), which is theoretically a bad thing because it means less sink — and minor league performance, and you’ve got an interesting pitching prospect.

The Yankees only have one open bullpen spot as things stand. Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, and Green are the late inning guys. Tommy Kahnle is the fourth option, Adam Warren fills the Adam Warren role, and Dellin Betances is the reclamation project. There is nearly an entire offseason to go, so of course things can change, but I get the sense the bullpen will not be a priority this winter. The Yankees are set with their primary relief crew.

That final bullpen spot figures to be up for grabs in Spring Training, and, truth be told, it’ll be up for grabs all season. Guys will shuttle in and out as necessary, and if someone pitches well enough to keep that spot, great! Having lots of options and lots of internal competition is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. German figures to be in the mix for that bullpen spot, though he could also get a look in the rotation at some point, if necessary. The ability to start could work against him, in fact. The Yankees could decide to leave him in Triple-A as a rotation option rather than pitch him in relief, though they tend to take the best arms and figure out the rest later.

When the Yankees traded for German, I imagine they were hoping he’d emerge as a big league option at some point in 2016 considering he’d spent the entire 2014 season in Low-A. That didn’t happen. Tommy John surgery threw a wrench into things. German now appears poised to help next season though, mostly because he dominated in the minors this year and flashed quality stuff during his big league cameo, especially with his fastball. While it would be unfair to expect German to be the next Chad Green, the tools are there for him to have success and be an out-of-nowhere contributor in 2018.

Chad Green will come to Spring Training as a starting pitcher, and there’s no reason not to try it

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

For the umpteenth straight season, the Yankees will have a relief pitcher report to Spring Training as a starting pitcher. Adam Warren has been that guy the last few years, and before him it was David Phelps. Next year it’ll be Chad Green (and Warren?). Brian Cashman confirmed earlier this week Green will indeed get a look as a rotation option in camp next year.

“The reliever situation (will be a) fallback, but nothing certain yet,” said Cashman to Erik Boland. “You can’t disregard how exceptional he was in the role he had, but at the same time, he didn’t find himself in that role because he was a failed starter.”

Green, 26, was outstanding for the Yankees this season, throwing 69 innings with a 1.83 ERA (1.75 FIP) and a 40.7% strikeout rate. Almost all of that came in relief. Green made one spot start in June and allowed two runs in two innings while on a limited pitch count. In the postseason he allowed five runs (four earned) in 8.2 innings.

I’ve said this a few times in recent weeks and I guess I have to say it again: I do not like the idea of Green as a starting pitcher. I don’t think he has the tools to be successful in that role long-term. There are two reasons:

  1. He doesn’t have a changeup. Green has a great fastball, but he lacks a third pitch — heck, even his second pitch (slider) isn’t all that great — and trying to go through a lineup multiple times by throwing fastballs by everyone doesn’t seem like it’ll work. I feel like someone would’ve done it already if it were a viable approach.
  2. He’s an extreme fly ball pitcher. A total of 355 pitchers threw at least 50 innings in 2017. Green ranked 353rd with a 26.4% ground ball rate. Yikes! He allowed 12 homers in 36.1 innings as a starter in 2016, remember. Asking him to go through a lineup multiple times in Yankee Stadium might get ugly.

Keep in mind Green finished the 2016 season on the disabled list after working as a starter pretty much all year. His season ended September 2nd because of a sprained ligament and a strained tendon in his elbow. That’s a scary combination of words. It worries me a bit. Can Green hold up physically under a starter’s workload? Is it worth the risk to find out?

Personally, I don’t like the idea of Green as a starter. Now, that said, the Yankees should absolutely try it in Spring Training. Why not? That’s exactly when you should tinker with things. Let Green get stretched out to four of five innings during Grapefruit League play, see how he looks, then make a decision about his role. It’s much easier to go from starter to reliever than reliever to starter. So let him start in camp, then adjust.

For years we heard an average starting pitcher is worth more than an elite reliever, but given the way pitching staffs are run these days, I think the pendulum has swung in the other direction. An elite reliever is very valuable, and Green was definitely elite in 2017. I think it would be much easier for the Yankees to find another fourth or fifth starter than another dominant multi-inning setup man. That should factor into the decision about Green’s role, right?

Like I said, I don’t like the idea of Green as a starter but I am totally cool with letting him try it in Spring Training. Maybe he develops a changeup or finds a ground ball pitch. Who knows? Stranger things have happened. One way or another, Green will again be an important part of the pitching staff next season. If he’s not starting, he’s going to be soaking up a lot of high-leverage innings out of the bullpen.

After deep playoff run, the Yankees will again have to monitor pitcher workloads in 2018

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

At some point in the coming days, we’ll find out whether the Yankees need to add one starting pitcher this offseason, or two. The deadline for Masahiro Tanaka to opt-out of his contract is Saturday, and if he opts out, the Yankees will need to replace Tanaka and CC Sabathia. If he doesn’t opt out, the Yankees will only have to replace Sabathia. And they very well could replace Sabathia with Sabathia. Re-signing him seems like a definite possibility.

As things stand right now, the only thing we know for sure about the 2018 rotation is that it will include Luis Severino, Sonny Gray, and Jordan Montgomery. My guess is both Chad Green and Adam Warren will come to Spring Training stretched out as starters, though the smart money is on both going back to the bullpen. Luis Cessa and Domingo German will be around as depth, plus Chance Adams and maybe Justus Sheffield will debut at some point in 2018 as well.

This year the Yankees had to monitor the workloads of all their starting pitchers for different reasons. Severino and Montgomery are young pitchers gradually increasing their workloads. The Yankees have handled Tanaka with kid gloves since his 2014 elbow injury. Sabathia’s knee is an ongoing concern. Gray has had some injury problems in recent years as well, so giving him extra rest from time to time was a priority.

And, as things stand now, the Yankees are again going to have to monitor the workloads of their starters next season thanks to their deep postseason run. Severino and Montgomery threw more innings this season than ever before. By a lot too.

  • Severino: 209.1 total innings (previous career high: 161.2 innings in 2015)
  • Montgomery: 163.1 total innings (previous career high: 139.1 innings in 2016)

The Yankees were so concerned about Montgomery’s workload — big league innings are not the same as minor league innings because there’s more stress and intensity involved — that they went out and added Jaime Garcia so they could send Montgomery to Triple-A to control his innings there. Severino seemed to tire out a bit in the postseason. I thought he was noticeably fatigued in the fourth inning of ALCS Game Six.

This isn’t just about raw innings totals though. Montgomery and especially Severino pitched deeper into the year than ever before. The Yankees were one game away from the World Series! That means a shorter offseason recover. And this applies to the veterans too. Tanaka and Sabathia, should they come back, as well as Gray will miss out on a few extra weeks to rest this winter because of the postseason run.

The whole World Series hangover phenomenon is not new. Pitchers who pitch deep into the postseason and have shorter offseasons than usual have been coming back the next year and struggling for a long time now. That’s part of what made Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera so great. Those guys played seven-month seasons, not six-month seasons, because the Yankees were always in the playoffs. Yet they never broke down physically.

As much as we’d like them to turn out that way, the Yankees can’t proceed under the assumption Severino and Montgomery are essentially unbreakable like Pettitte and Rivera. This year they had to be careful with their workloads eclipsing their previous career highs. Next year they’ll have to worry about any lingering effects from those big workloads this year, and well as the shorter offseason that comes with going to Game Seven of the ALCS.

The Yankees know this, of course. Remember the Javy Vazquez trade? The second one? The Yankees made that trade because Sabathia, Pettitte, and A.J. Burnett worked hard in 2009 and pitched into November en route to the World Series championship. The Yankees wanted an innings eater to help lighten the load on the other guys. So they went out and got Vazquez, who at the time had just thrown 190+ innings for the tenth straight season to bolster the back of the rotation.

Now, the Vazquez trade didn’t work out in 2010. He stunk. But the idea was sound. Get another innings eater for the back of the rotation so it’s easier to pull Sabathia, Pettitte, and Burnett a little earlier than usual without overtaxing the bullpen following their long 2009 seasons. That’s where the Yankees are now. Their starters just threw a ton of innings and pitched deep into October, and there might be a carryover effect in 2018.

Perhaps the need to add rotation depth this winter isn’t as great as it was following 2009. The farm system is much richer now. Cessa, German, Adams, and Caleb Smith are basically MLB ready. Back in 2009, their best MLB ready pitching prospects were, uh, Ivan Nova? Zach McAllister? Good big leaguers! But the farm system was much thinner, and the Yankees didn’t have an Adams waiting, that top pitching prospect, or a Sheffield not far behind.

I’ve always been a pitching depth guy. Bring in as many viable starters as possible and don’t worry about where they all fit, because odds are you’ll need all of them at some point anyway. If the Yankees re-sign Sabathia, retain Tanaka, and bring in a veterans innings dude who pushes Montgomery to Triple-A to start 2018, I wouldn’t lose any sleep. Montgomery would be back in MLB before you know it. The long season and big workloads are something the Yankees have to be cognizant of next year, and that could mean making another Vazquez-esque trade.

The Yankees are one game away from the World Series thanks to their pitching staff

(Abbie Parr/Getty)
(Abbie Parr/Getty)

In just a few hours the Yankees will look to clinch a spot in the 2017 World Series. I still can’t believe they’ve made it this far. They weren’t supposed to contend this year. They weren’t supposed to come back from down 0-2 to the Indians. They weren’t supposed to come back from down 0-2 to the Astros. Now here they are, one win away from the American League championship. Pretty amazing.

The story of the ALCS so far has been the Astros’ lack of offense, or, as I prefer to frame it, the Yankees’ pitching. They’ve completely shut down the highest scoring offense in baseball in the five games so far. The ‘Stros have scored nine runs (seven earned) on 22 hits and 16 walks in the five games so far. That works out to a 1.45 ERA for the Yankees and a .147/.234/.213 batting line for the Astros. Yeesh.

“It’s rare (for this lineup to struggle so much), because of how much offense we put up through the first six months of the season and even in the Division Series,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch following Game Five. “We’ve swung the bats very well and to this day I believe we’re one game (away from) coming out of it. We’re going to go home. We hit well. We get a day off, which is probably the most important thing, and try to make some offensive adjustments … We haven’t stayed in our game plan quite well enough to make adjustments.”

The last few games, you could see the frustration beginning to mount in the Astros hitters based on their body language. Carlos Correa slammed his bat after popping up with the bases loaded in Game Four. Jose Altuve struck out in the same game and was yelling at himself as he walked back to the dugout. Josh Reddick threw his helmet after swinging at this pitch …

masahiro-tanaka-josh-reddick

… to strike out in Game Five, stranding two men on base in the fifth inning. The Astros are struggling offensively and they know they’re struggling offensively. The frustration has built up and now it’s boiling over. For the Yankees, that’s a wonderful thing. You want the Astros squeezing sap out of the bat. You want them trying to hit a five-run home run with each swing. The less relaxed and comfortable they feel at the plate, the better. The pressure is on big time.

Here are some quick numbers comparing Houston’s offense this series to their offense during the regular season and the ALDS:

Regular Season ALDS ALCS
AVG .282 (1st in MLB) .333 .147
ISO .196 (1st) .238 .067
wOBA .355 (1st) .419 .210
xwOBA .330 (3rd) .377 .293
Avg. Exit Velo 87.6 (3rd) 88.3 86.2
Avg. Launch Angle 12.0° (9th) 18.9° 7.1°
BABIP .313 (4th) .376 .183

Just about everything in that table is a descriptive stat. It’s telling you what actually happened on the field. The one exception is xwOBA, or expected wOBA based on exit velocity and launch angle and all sorts of other factors. It’s telling you what a player or team would be expected to hit based on the type of batted ball. A .293 xwOBA — wOBA is on the same scale as OBP, so .293 is terrible — tells you the Astros aren’t making good contact at all. There’s not much bad luck here, if any.

The Yankees, based on what I’ve seen, haven’t changed their pitching approach much in the ALCS. The Indians went breaking ball heavy in the ALDS, as we saw. The Yankees have not done that. Masahiro Tanaka pitched like Masahiro Tanaka. CC Sabathia pitched like CC Sabathia. So on and so forth. And yet, they’ve completely dominated. They’re not giving up much hard contact, and they’ve been able to limit baserunners. The Astros have had 44 offensive innings this series and in only ten of them have they multiple runners on base. Crazy.

Now, here’s the thing: the Astros aren’t really this bad. Give them enough time and their offense will snap out of it. And that’s why it’s important to end the ALCS as soon as possible, meaning tonight. I have to think the Astros will be energized by their fans and playing at home tonight, the same way the Yankees were energized by their home fans the last three games. Know how the Yankees are 6-0 at home this postseason? Well, the Astros are 4-0 at home.

What’s done is done though. The Yankees have silenced Houston’s offense through five ALCS games and, as a result, they lead the series 3-2. It happened. It’s in the books. As cool as it would be, I don’t think the Yankees have truly found the magic formula to shutting down the Astros. It’s baseball. This stuff happens, and it happened at a bad time for Houston. And if it continues in Game Six, great. If not, the Yankees are good enough to win anyway.

After a rough regular season, Masahiro Tanaka has become the postseason ace the Yankees need

(Getty)
(Getty)

Four years ago the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka hoping he would do what he is doing right now. They signed him expecting him to be an impact pitcher, especially in the postseason, one who would help the Yankees get to the World Series. The Yankees aren’t in the World Series yet, but they’re a win away, and Tanaka is a very big reason why.

Last night, in Game Five of the ALCS, Tanaka held the Astros to three hits and one walk in seven scoreless innings. He struck out seven and allowed only eight of the 26 batters he faced to hit the ball out of the infield. It was a dominant performance against a very good offense. An ace-like performance through and through.

“He was special again. You look at his three starts in the playoffs, they’ve been special,” said Joe Girardi after last night’s game. “He wins the one game 1-0, I believe, the first start. His two starts here have been really good. And we needed it. This was a big game for us.”

So far this postseason Tanaka has indeed made three starts — one against the Indians and two against the Astros. His start against the Indians was an elimination game, remember. Tanaka’s line in those three starts: 20 IP, 10 H, 2 R, 2 R, 3 BB, 18 K. He’s thrown only 90 of his 284 total pitches from the stretch. Only 32% of his pitches have come with a man on base. That is nuts.

Tanaka, of course, was the last starter the Yankees used this postseason. Luis Severino got the ball in the Wild Card Game because he deserved the ball in the Wild Card Game. The Yankees pushed Tanaka back to Game Three of the ALDS not only because his home/road split is drastic, but because he was the worst of the team’s four postseason starters during the regular season.

During the regular season Tanaka threw 178.1 innings and ranked 50th in ERA (4.74) and 36th in FIP (4.34) among the 58 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. His +1.0 WAR put him on par with guys like Ariel Miranda (+1.0 WAR) and Austin Bibens-Dirkx (+0.9 WAR). Only three pitchers allowed more home runs in 2017.

Tanaka did pitch better in the final three months of the regular season, though he was still prone to the occasional blowout, and it was enough for the Yankees to start three pitchers before him in the postseason. Now, three starts later, Tanaka has been the team’s best pitcher in the playoffs and it’s not close. He’s been that good so far.

“All I’m trying to do out there is just try to do my best and that’s pretty much it,” said Tanaka following last night’s game, through an interpreter. “I feel like I’m just keeping it really simple. You go out there and you fight and you empty the tank. I think I’m just really clear of what I need to do out there and I’m just executing that.”

Going from the contract signing in 2014 to postseason ace in 2017 has been a bumpy road. There’s no doubt about that. The Elbow™ still hangs over every pitch he throws. There have been some other injuries along the way, plus a lot of home runs and more than a few dud starts. Tanaka has been intermittently fantastic and terrible the last four years.

What happened in the past doesn’t matter though. Right now Tanaka is throwing the ball as well as he has at any point in his Yankees career. I truly believe that. This stretch is on par with the first half of 2014. Tanaka is fearless on the mound. The guy seems unflappable. And right now, he’s giving the Yankees exactly what they expected when they signed him. He’s the No. 1 starter on a title contender.

Sonny Gray must get his control back on track for the Yankees to have a chance in Game Four

(Gregory Shamus/Getty)
(Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Last week, when the Yankees lined up their ALCS rotation, they opted to start trade deadline pickup Sonny Gray in Game Four even though he started Game One of the ALDS and could’ve started Game One of the ALCS. The Yankees had Gray throw an extended three-inning simulated game on Thursday to stay sharp, though he’s still going 12 days between postseason appearances.

There are a few reasons the Yankees lined up their ALCS rotation the way they did. One, Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino are their two best pitchers — Severino because of the way he’s thrown all year, Tanaka because of the way he’s thrown lately — and they wanted them going up against Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander in Games One and Two. Two, the Yankees trust CC Sabathia in a Game Seven situation, so they lined him up for that start.

And three, Gray has simply not pitched all that well lately. His first eight starts in pinstripes went great, as he threw 50.2 innings with a 2.66 ERA (4.14 FIP). Gray’s final three regular season starts did not go well (7.36 ERA and 7.38 FIP), and in his ALDS start, he allowed three runs in 3.1 innings before getting the hook. The problem, again, was his control. Gray walked four and struck out two in that ALDS start. In his last four starts, and he has 14 walks and 12 strikeouts in 18 innings. Yikes.

For the 2017 season overall, Gray had an 8.4% walk rate, which was essentially league average (8.5%) and just a tick above his career rate (7.9%). As the season progressed though, his walk rate kept climbing.

sonny-gray-walk-rate

Hmmm. Why has Gray been walking more batters lately, particularly in his last four starts? That’s tough to answer from here, and it could be a combination of many things. His mechanics are out of whack. He’s hiding an injury. Giving up home runs at Yankee Stadium scared him out of the strike zone. He’s trying to be way too precise in an effort to impress his new teammates and coaching staff and fans. Who knows?

The walks themselves aren’t the only problem. Gray has been falling behind in the count a lot as well lately, which puts hitters on the advantage. During these last four starts Gray has faced 86 batters, and by my count, 21 saw a hitter friendly 2-0 or 3-1 count, and more than a few of those 21 saw a 2-0 count and a 3-1 count in the same at-bat. Gray went to a 2-0 or 3-1 count on 17.0% of batters faced during the regular season. The MLB average is 17.1%. Over these last four starts, Gray is at 24.4%.

From watching him pitch over the years — not just with the Yankees, but with the A’s as well — Gray is the type of pitcher who doesn’t need to hit his spots perfectly to get good results. He has good velocity and everything he throws moves, helping him avoid the barrel. Gray can aim for a quadrant of the strike zone, let it rip, and let his natural movement do the work. Being precise with all that movement can be difficult.

Whatever the cause of these walks and recent control problems, this much is clear: the Astros won’t let those free baserunners go unpunished. Well, that’s not necessarily true. The Yankees did walk eight batters in Game Three last night and only one scored. (For real.) I just wouldn’t count on that happening again, giving the Astros so many free passes and escaping unscathed. As good as New York’s pitching has been in the ALCS, Houston’s lineup feels like a sleeping giant.

Now, this isn’t to say Gray should just fire it in there middle-middle to avoid walks, because that’ll create a completely different set of problems. But continuing to fall behind in the count and either walking people or going 2-0 and 3-1 is a recipe for trouble. We’ve seen it in Gray’s last four starts and the stakes are a lot higher now. To keep the Astros in check, Sonny has to attack and stay in the strike zone, something he’s done throughout his career, just not lately.