The best Yankees teams have always featured iconic sluggers throughout the lineup. As witnessed in their 15-7 route of the White Sox on Thursday, New York still has plenty of power, especially if it can get Josh Donaldson's bat going.But this offseason, the 24-8 Yankees, baseball's best team entering the weekend, pivoted to place more of a premium on run prevention. They traded bat for glove. They moved catcher and longtime defensive liability Gary Sanchez to Minnesota in a deal that brought back Isiah Kiner-Falefa, an upgrade defensively at shortstop, which moved Gleyber Torres to second base and a utility role. The Yankees converted 69.8% of in-play, batted balls into outs last season. That rate is up to 71.2% this season. They're splitting catcher innings between Jose Trevino and Kyle Higashioka, who are about twice as valuable defensively as Sanchez per inning over the course of their careers, according to FanGraphs' runs saved values.So while there was little doubt the Yankees' fielding would be better as their focus shifted to pitching and defense, big questions about their starting pitching remained. Well, the Yankees' arms are answering those questions with flying colors to date, and such staffs have historically led to pennants and World Series trophies in the Bronx. The Yankees traded bat for glove in adding Isiah Kiner-Falefa. It appears to be working. Icon Sportswire / Icon Sportswire / GettyThe Yankees currently have a 76 ERA-, second to only the Dodgers. If they maintain that performance over a full season, the mark would be the second-best over a campaign in club history, sandwiched between 1939 (74 ERA-) and 1927 (80) World Series championship teams, and their best since their 1998 World Series-winning club.Why ERA-? The measure adjusts for ballpark and run-environment factors for each year, better enabling us to compare seasons and eras. An ERA- of 100 equates to league-average pitching. Lower is better.The Yankees' 10 best teams in ERA- all reached the World Series, and six won titles. The current staff helped New York to its best start to a season since 2003, another campaign in which it reached the World Series. The 2022 Yankees lead the majors in pitching WAR (5.2). Yankees Best 30-Game Starts All-Time1928 24-6 Won WS1939 24-6 Won WS1958 24-6 Won WS1998 23-7 Won WS2003 23-7 Lost WS1923 22-8 Won WS1932 22-8 Won WS1950 22-8 Won WS2022 22-8 James Smyth (@JamesSmyth621) May 11, 2022 While many expected the Yankees to be far better defensively, this level of pitching success is a surprise. Is it sustainable?Even staff ace Gerrit Cole, who the Yankees outbid the market for with a record deal in December 2019, had questions about how he'd perform entering the season. Colin Braley / Major League Baseball / GettyLast year, Cole's second half wasn't as good as his first half, after MLB began policing and enforcing sticky substance use in the middle of the season. He posted a 2.68 ERA (28.6% strikeout rate) in the first half of 2021, and a 4.14 mark (26.5% strikeout rate) in the second as his spin rate declined.Luis Severino entered this year coming back from Tommy John surgery. Jameson Taillon was up and down last year in his first year back from returning from Tommy John a second time. And the two lefties on the staff, Jordan Montgomery and Nestor Cortes, were very good but their track record was spotty.New York's starters currently boast an 81 ERA- as a rotation. That rate over a full season would be the first time since 1998 and 1981 that the club was at least 15% better than league average, and both those teams made the World Series.So, is this for real? Can the Yankees count on this staff to remain well above average?There's reason to believe much of it is sustainable.Cole is pitching well and appears to have adapted to baseball's sticky-stuff policing. While his strikeout rate is slightly down, and his overall spin rate is down a bit on fastballs and breaking balls, he's throwing as hard as ever and enjoying some slight movement increases on his breaking pitches, perhaps achieved through improved pitch design and efficiency.Taillon changed how, what, and where he threw last year, trading in a sinker-down-in-the-zone focus he adhered to in Pittsburgh for pitching more up in the zone with his four-seam fastball. Your browser does not support the video tag. Augustine Visuals / Major League Baseball However, he began to add the two-seamer back late last season, which is an effective pitch and grades as above average this season. He also added a cutter to his arsenal this year, which compelled Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to break his bat over his knee after a swing-and-miss strikeout Wednesday. Taillon keeps evolving the further he's removed from surgery, and he now owns a six-pitch mix, one of the most diverse in the game. While he may never live up to his draft pedigree as the No. 2 overall pick in 2010, he appears to at least be a quality mid-rotation option and boasts a 25-to-3 strikeout-to-walk ratio early this year.Severino still owns a gifted arm. In his first full season back from Tommy John, his fastball velocity (96.6 mph) and swinging strike rate (12%) are in line with his pre-surgery levels, and remain above the major-league average. His fielding-independent numbers suggest he's been better than his 4.08 ERA to date. He holds the second half upside.Severino is averaging 97 mph with his fastball. He could get stronger as he gets further removed from Tommy John surgery. Dustin Satloff / Getty Images Sport / GettyMontgomery began to fulfill his promise last year. The lefty has always had good command and pitch quality but he's beginning to trust stuff more and more, as evidenced by his 71.8% first-pitch strike rate, which moved him ahead of Toronto's Kevin Gausman among pitchers who have thrown at least 30 innings this season. As with Gausman, trust and pounding the zone is helping Montgomery get ahead, put away hitters, and avoid three-run homers.And then there's one of the season's top breakout stories: Cortes.Cortes owns a sparkling 1.41 ERA and 0.97 WHIP. He reached a new performance level last year and is clearly proving he's a viable big-league starter.His fastball, cutter, and changeup are all playing as above-average pitches. He's throwing his cutter substantially more often and can get it glove side, or inside, to right-handed batters. Mike Stobe / Getty Images Sport / GettyBut some elements of Cortes' underlying skills - his velocity, pitching movement, and swinging strikes - haven't changed much, which suggests he's outperforming his true talent level. Moreover, he entered Friday ranking sixth in strand rate (88%), which accounts for the percentage of runners that reach base but don't score. While he's being supported by a better defense, as all the Yankees' arms are, at some point that rate is likely to return nearer league average.Of course, few pitchers outside of peak Pedro Martinez and a healthy Jacob deGrom are threats to sustain a 1.41 ERA. Though even when Cortes likely regresses from here, he still appears to be a quality arm.While it remains early, and while health is a question with every staff, this Yankees group may have the right stuff to lead the team to a division title, and to the World Series, where New York hasn't been since 2009.The Yankees' pivot to pitching and defense might just pay off in a big way.Travis Sawchik is theScore's senior baseball writer.Copyright © 2022 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.
With the opening month in the books, theScore's MLB editors answer some of the biggest questions around the game.Which team has exceeded your expectations 1 month into the season? Jamie Squire / Getty Images Sport / GettyNew York YankeesMaybe this says more about misplaced doubt in the Bronx Bombers, but it would've been difficult to find someone before the season who expected the Yankees to be the single best team in the American League. First in the Junior Circuit to 20 wins and pummeling opponents with an AL-best plus-49 run differential (behind only the Dodgers), they've been unbelievable. Perhaps most surprising about their dominance is how great the pitching has been. Entering the season with quite a few question marks beyond Gerrit Cole, Nestor Cortes Jr. has looked like an early Cy Young contender - though with less innings than the top guys - while Jordan Montgomery and Jameson Taillon have also been great. Even further, Michael King and Clay Holmes have been arguably the best relievers in baseball so far. In a division expected to be dominated by the Blue Jays and Rays, the Yankees certainly won't be a pushover. - Michael BradburnArizona DiamondbacksThe D-Backs may sit last in the NL West, but they're above .500 after losing 110 games last season. The club's starting pitching has simply been outstanding, accruing the ninth-best fWAR in the majors thus far. The trio of Merrill Kelly, Madison Bumgarner, and Zac Gallen have given up a combined 12 earned runs over 89 1/3 innings. In particular, Kelly has yet to surrender a homer over six starts. The playoffs are probably out of the question for this group. However, things don't look as dire as they once did. - Tom RuminskiCleveland GuardiansThe Guardians era is off to a great start. Cleveland is hanging around in the AL Central thanks to a red-hot offense that ranks third in the majors in WAR. This unit goes well beyond Jose Ramirez: youngsters Owen Miller and Steven Kwan have been revelations for Terry Francona's club, while Josh Naylor's also hit well since returning from last year's leg injury. The pitchers have certainly done their share as well, helping them post a plus-13 run differential - second in the division. Maybe this isn't a top-five offensive team over 162 games, but these Guardians are certainly showing they won't go down without a fight. It's been fun watching this young group jell early on, and if they do stay in the race, they could be one of the summer's best and brightest stories. - Simon Sharkey-GotliebWhich team has disappointed the most? Winslow Townson / Getty Images Sport / GettyBoston Red SoxAfter coming within two wins of the World Series last season, the Red Sox are off to a disastrous start in 2022. The offense looks anemic, while ace Chris Sale is yet to make a start and doesn't look likely to return for at least another month. The early returns on the six-year, $140-million contract given to second baseman Trevor Story are not good. The 29-year-old is without a home run and has already found himself on the receiving end of some boos at Fenway Park. It's far too early to write off a team with this much talent, but if the Red Sox don't get their act together soon, they might be forced to have some uncomfortable conversations as we creep closer to the trade deadline. - Josh Goldberg Detroit TigersThe Tigers came into the year with postseason aspirations following a surprising 77-win campaign and a great offseason. However, Detroit doesn't look close to being a playoff contender after winning just eight of 28 contests to start the season. Only the abysmal Reds have a worse winning percentage. The No. 1 culprit behind the dreadful start has been the offense. The team has the second-lowest offensive rating in baseball, according to FanGraphs. The core of the problem is a serious power outage, with an MLB-worst 11 long balls. - RuminskiAtlanta BravesIt's not that there haven't been bright spots in Atlanta. Max Fried and Kyle Wright have both been spectacular atop the rotation, Kenley Jansen's looked like his old self, and Ronald Acuna Jr. finally returned to action. But the Braves have also been inconsistent, failing to win more than two games in a row while sporting a minus-3 run differential. They've received little in the way of outfield production; Marcell Ozuna, Adam Duvall, and Eddie Rosario have either struggled mightily or are injured, making Acuna's return even more of a blessing. The rotation behind Fried and Wright has also been iffy, especially veteran Charlie Morton. The Braves do have time on their side, but holding onto second place by mere percentage points while sitting below .500 is not where the defending champions expected to be after one month. - Sharkey-GotliebChicago White SoxNow, they're still likely to win the division and are coming off a six-game win streak. However, some early season hardships have definitely exposed a few weaknesses that may linger. First, the pitching depth is getting tested and, frankly, failing. Every team needs injury depth, but Dallas Keuchel turning into a pumpkin with a 6.86 ERA over five starts certainly complicates things. Especially since they've already had to rely on Jimmy Lambert and Vince Velasquez for seven starts. More importantly, the lineup and defense has looked awful. Beyond Tim Anderson, Luis Robert, and Andrew Vaughn (who is now sidelined), the White Sox have trotted out way too many easy outs. Of course, that's compounded by early injuries to Eloy Jimenez and Yoan Moncada (who has now returned), but A.J. Pollock, Leury Garcia, and Yasmani Grandal have looked downright terrible. - BradburnSellers: which player will be traded first? Quinn Harris / Getty Images Sport / GettyWillson ContrerasThe Cubs' dismal April put any lingering hope of a quick retool to rest, and Contreras is their best trade chip. He's certainly doing his part to help the Cubs get a good return: Contreras' 148 wRC+ leads all qualified catchers. While he will be a free agent this winter, the chance to acquire one of the best catchers with championship experience should have contenders lining up to make Jed Hoyer an offer. I could see contenders in desperate need of catching striking quickly in hopes of adding Contreras well before the deadline. - Sharkey-GotliebFrankie MontasIt's surprising the Athletics haven't already dealt the right-hander after their offseason fire sale. Oakland has lost nine of 10 following a respectable start to the season. Montas should be the best starter available for a contender looking for an early season boost or an injury replacement. The 29-year-old is arbitration-eligible through 2023 and owns a 3.83 ERA with 9.4 K/9 in his seven-year career. - RuminskiTyler Mahle The Reds don't have much to sell off at this point, but Mahle might be the most intriguing of the few names. The righty broke out last year, posting a 3.75 ERA and 3.80 FIP over 33 starts while really finding an elite strikeout touch, posting a 27.7% K rate (ninth-best in the NL last year). This season, the earned run average doesn't look especially good so far, but the peripherals are decent. He still needs to work on his tendency for giving up walks, but the deadened ball seems to be suppressing his home run issues. - BradburnWhat is the biggest problem MLB is facing this season? Duane Burleson / Getty Images Sport / GettyUmpiringCheck your eyes, Blue! Umpires have been hearing it from players, coaches, and fans early on. And rightfully so. The inconsistent strike zone has been maddening and umps aren't doing a good job convincing MLB that robots aren't the solution. There have been plenty of ejections so far, but Kyle Schwarber's nuclear meltdown on Angel Hernandez felt like the entire sport collectively losing its cool. Dan Bellino's actions toward Bumgarner were even more bizarre. Baiting a player into a heated exchange isn't a good look, especially with all the other controversy that seems to be following umps around these days. - RuminskiThe deadened ballHonestly, the product doesn't suffer because of the dip in home runs. Some folks like it that way. Some folks hate it that way. There's always going to be a debate. What sucks is the players simply are not prepared for these sudden changes, and the product does suffer when players are outspoken about them. We've got pitchers complaining about their lack of grip on the ball causing more hit-by-pitches; we've got hitters acting like they've hit no-doubters just to watch it get caught by an outfielder standing short of the warning track. When discourse around a sport is more about the commissioner's constant tinkering causing yet another potential scandal - as it so often is with baseball - it's ridiculous. More transparency could easily solve this. - BradburnToo many channelsThere's nothing inherently wrong with the league's new streaming deals, or broadcasting exclusive games on YouTube - this appears to be the future of sports broadcasting, after all. But MLB is starting to spread it too far. Exclusive weekly deals with Peacock and AppleTV+, or the Yankees' new contract with Amazon Prime, make it harder for fans of all ages to find games, especially when they're not available on a regular MLBTV subscription. Adding to the insanity is MLB's refusal to do away with its unbelievably out-of-date regional blackout policy on its own streaming service; fans in some states are blacked out from at least six different teams, meaning they can't watch almost half the league on a given night. MLB can change everything about its on-field product and it won't make a difference if the league continues to make it needlessly difficult for fans to access the sport. - Sharkey-GotliebCopyright © 2022 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.
Gleyber Torres belted a walk-off home run and Gerrit Cole struck out 10 batters in 6 1/3 innings to secure the Yankees' 2-1 win
The last time a major-league pitcher got off to a start like Joe Ryan's was more than a century ago.In tossing seven scoreless innings and allowing only two baserunners versus the Tigers on Wednesday, the right-hander lowered his career WHIP to 0.74 over his first nine career starts. Stats Perform tweeted that the mark is the lowest of any major leaguer through his first nine starts since Christy Mathewson (0.70) in 1900-01, back in the aptly called Dead Ball Era.How Ryan is doing it is the remarkable part.In an age of record pitch velocities and designer breaking balls, the Minnesota Twins right-hander is succeeding with below-average velocity and below-average spin. Baseball Savant ranks his fastball velocity (92 mph) in the 29th percentile this season, and his fastball spin ranks in the 41st percentile. Yet his overall whiff percentage (30.1%) ranks in the 84th percentile.Only four major-league starting pitchers have a superior overall fastball to that of Ryan early this season, according to FanGraphs: Carlos Rodon, Alek Manoah, Tylor Megill, and Michael Lorenzen, each of whom throws with more velocity. Ryan has currently saved 5.3 runs with his fastball.Of all MLB pitchers to throw at least 20 four-seams fastballs dating back to June 3, 2021, Ryan ranks in the top quarter of 700 pitchers in swinging strike percentage. He's not putting runners on base because of his excellent command and his ability to throw a sneaky fastball by hitters.That date, June 3, is when MLB sent a memo announcing its intention to begin cracking down on sticky stuff - the spin-adding foreign substances - in an effort to reduce strikeouts. Ron Schwane / Getty ImagesHave Ryan and the Twins unlocked a secret in improving fastball performance? Ryan's rotation mate, Bailey Ober, has a similar pitching profile. Have they cracked a code in understanding fastball deception? Is it something that other teams and players can borrow from in a sticky-free era?So, what is Ryan up to?"I think it's just putting it in the right place, the vertical approach angle, and also where the ball comes out," Ryan told theScore during spring training.Let's start with vertical approach angle.Ryan first heard about vertical approach angle while pitching at Cal State Northridge, before the Tampa Bay Rays took him in the seventh round of the 2018 draft. He learned more about the idea with the Rays. (Tampa Bay traded Ryan to Minnesota for Nelson Cruz last season.)Vertical approach angle is simply the trajectory at which a pitch enters the strike zone as it crosses home plate. The flatter the angle of a fastball, the harder it is to hit because the trajectory stays above a batter's own swing plane. Brace Hemmelgarn / Getty ImagesAmong the 700 major-league pitchers to throw at least 20 fastballs since last June 3, about half, 339, have an average approach angle greater than minus-5 degrees (steeper approach). The other 329 had approach angles less than minus-5 degrees, or closer to zero, a flatter approach. The spin rates and adjusted spin rates of the two groups are nearly identical.Those with the flatter planes averaged a 12% swinging strike rate with their fastball compared to 8% with steeper planes.Analysis of the numbers with a simple linear model shows that vertical approach angle has a stronger correlation with swing and miss (about 17% of variance) than fastball velocity (about 11%). They both play a role, as does pitch location.Ryan adds to the deception with his release point. Despite standing at just under the average pitcher's height of 6-foot-3, Ryan owns one of the lowest release points - only five feet above the mound.Few pitchers have a lower release point than the Twins' Joe Ryan. Icon Sportswire / Getty ImagesRyan said he never purposefully threw this way, it just felt natural in his youth, and he continued to develop that way after he turned pro."I probably just learned to throw that way over time, and just saw results, the swings and misses, and fell into those patterns," Ryan said. "I never really noticed it until I got to pro ball and people were like, 'You have a really low release point.' ... And as I've learned more about it, I've tried to pay attention to it a little more, just try and keep that arm slot, and just throw how it feels natural for me."What Ryan does is similar in some ways to how Chris Bassitt found success with modest fastball spin and velocity, and how Jacob deGrom's otherworldly stuff plays up even more thanks to a lower release and approach angle. Your browser does not support the video tag. Major League Baseball Your browser does not support the video tag. Major League BaseballSince last June, there are 55 right-handed pitchers with a release point below 5.8 feet, an approach angle of minus-5 degrees to zero, and at least average extension to home plate (meaning how close the ball is released to the plate).The group includes Ryan, Ober, and Bassitt; recent Cy Young Award winners deGrom and Shane Bieber; staff aces Zack Wheeler, Walker Buehler, and Gerrit Cole; Atlanta breakout Kyle Wright; Seattle's prized rookie Matt Brash; and Tampa Bay's top pitching prospect Shane Baz.Some have better raw stuff than others in that group, but perhaps they all have purposefully, or accidentally, stumbled upon cracking this code to make their fastballs more effective.The swinging strike rate of fastball's in the group was 12.6%, an elite mark for the pitch.They also generally have high spin efficiency, meaning the spin axis of the ball is aligned so that it enjoys as much movement as possible from the Magnus effect (known in baseball circles as active spin and which governs most pitch movement).Ryan's active spin (95.7%) ranks in the top quartile of all pitchers and helps keep the pitch on a flatter plane. Another pitcher with similar active spin who the Twins recently acquired and are getting immediate results from is Chris Paddack (99.4% active spin).Can the Twins get more out of Chris Paddack and his fastball? Brace Hemmelgarn / Getty ImagesAs a pro, Ryan worked to get more "direct" in his delivery. Despite his low release, it doesn't have a sidearm-like release point. Neither does Bassitt or deGrom."I've always had a low three-quarters slot," Ryan said. "But as I got more on line and more direct, my slot came in lower and lower, and my release sight got a little bit lower. I stayed behind it so I still got that spin."Another way of saying all that: Ryan is getting the most he can out of his fastball.Ryan said the Twins' staff, particularly Joshua Kalk - vice president of baseball operations, strategy, and innovation - helped him optimize his sneaky fastball."(Kalk) has been a huge asset for me, in looking at how I can use my fastball to get more swing and miss," Ryan said. "Which ones I'm getting pop-ups with, swing misses, and ground balls, just trying to figure out where to put the ball."Bailey Ober is the tallest pitcher in the majors at 6-foot-9, but the Twins had him drop his release point. Kathryn Riley / Getty ImagesTwins pitchers Ryan, Ober, and Paddack rank in the top quartile of the sport in average height of fastballs that cross the plate, where there's also generally more swing and miss.Ober's also cracking this low-release, flattened-fastball code.At 6-foot-9, Ober is the tallest starter in the majors. One might think the Twins would want Ober to have an extreme over-the-top motion to maximize his height, but in the winter of 2019-20, the Twins came to Ober with an idea to lower his release, in part because they thought it would be a healthier arm stroke for him. They also thought it would help his fastball play.A few weeks before pitchers and catchers reported to camp in Fort Myers, Florida, in 2020, Ober was there on the back-field mounds trying to get lower and develop a flatter approach angle with his fastball."They kinda narrow it down to: 'OK, this is what we think is best,'" Ober said. "A four-seam (fastball) that has some ride to it is going to look like it's jumping a little faster out of your hand more than normal."That's what Joe and I have."No one has stuff like deGrom's, but he also has deceptive elements of his delivery that make his stuff even better. Mike Stobe / Getty ImagesOber's career is off to a promising start (3.94 ERA, 1.3 WAR in his first 112 innings), despite leaving his Thursday start with a groin strain that landed him on the injured list. Since last June, Ober owns an even greater swinging strike rate (12.9%) than Ryan (12.7%).Ober and Ryan give the Twins two sneaky-good fastballs in the starting rotation to help bolster their playoff ambitions.They reside in baseball's gray area, that fuzzy space where analytics struggles to grasp what makes a pitch like theirs so hard to hit. Understanding deception is one of the final quests in MLB, and perhaps Ryan and Ober offer clues in capturing it.Travis Sawchik is theScore's senior baseball writer.Copyright © 2022 Score Media Ventures Inc. All rights reserved. Certain content reproduced under license.
Turns out the New York Yankees can win ballgames even when they don't put one out of the park. It helps having Gerrit Cole on the mound.