Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Fun With Numbers: The Yankees' Pitching

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Last night in the Bronx, the Yankees allowed their first unearned run in more than a month. With two outs in the ninth, Sean Murphy reached on catcher’s interference and came around to score on an Elvis Andrus single. Clay Holmes got the final out in the Yankees’ 2-1 win. The Jose Trevino mistake cost the Yankees their 12th shutout of the season, but in the end the game was the team’s 21st, in 75 games, in which they allowed no more than one run. As you might expect, the Yankees are 21-0 in these contests. Surprisingly, that does not lead the league.

Shutdown Games (most games allowing zero or one run, 2022)

           G     Rec
Dodgers   24    23-1
Astros    22    22-0
Yankees   21    21-0
Twins     20    19-1
Angels    20    18-2

It would have taken me a lot of guesses to peg the last team on that list.

The Yankees’ run prevention has been incredible this season. Even while losing a number of stalwart relievers to injury, with Chad Green out for the season and both Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Loaisiga missing time, the Yankees have allowed the fewest runs in baseball, 229. They have the lowest FIP and xFIP in the game. Their starters are in the top three in ERA, FIP, and xFIP, and they’ve thrown the second-most innings in the game, behind only the Padres. The team’s bullpen has the lowest ERA and third-lowest FIP. Yankees’ relievers lead MLB with a 49.9% groundball rate, and they have a chance to be one of the few bullpens to have at least a 50% groundball rate since we started tracking in 2002.

Ground and Pound (single-season GB% by RPs, 2002-2022)

               Year     GB%
1. White Sox   2015   53.4%   
2. Giants      2012   52.6%
3. White Sox   2014   52.1%
4. Pirates     2013   52.0%
5. Athletics   2002   51.9%
19. Yankees    2022   49.9%

A big part of this is the emergence of the reliever who closed out Tuesday night’s win, Clay Holmes, Holmes has become a right-handed Zack Britton, someone whose pitches are hard to hit and nearly impossible to elevate. Here’s how Statcast would put it.

Worm Burning, Pt. 1 (Lowest Launch Angle allowed, 2022, min. 50 batted balls)

                          LA (degrees)
Clay Holmes      NYY   -10.0
Framber Valdez   HOU    -3.9
Tim Mayza        TOR    -3.7
Sam Hentges      CLE    -3.5
Andre Pallante   STL    -3.1

That’s breaking the scale. The difference between Holmes and Framber Valdez, 6.1 degrees of average launch angle, is the difference between Valdez and #19 on the list.

We’re nearly halfway through the season, and Holmes has allowed seven fly balls and nine line drives, total. I mentioned Zack Britton above...see if you can figure out why.

Worm Burning, Pt. 2 (Highest GB%, 2002-2022, min. 30 IP)

                        Year     GB%
Clay Holmes      NYY    2022   81.8%
Zack Britton     BAL    2016   80.0%
Zack Britton     BAL    2015   79.1%
Zack Britton     NYY    2019   77.2%
Aaron Bummer     CHW    2021   76.1%

It’s all about the sinker. With the Pirates, Holmes was a three-pitch pitcher, using a two-seamer, slider and curve. Since being traded to the Yankees last summer, he’s junked the curve and turned the slider into a secondary pitch, leaning more and more on that sinker. In 2022, he’s thrown the sinker four out of every five pitches, and gotten more ground balls than any pitcher in recorded history.

You know what’s crazy? The Yankees could get Britton himself back late this season and for the playoffs. The two best groundball pitchers in recorded baseball history might be coming out of the same bullpen this fall.

All of this puts the Yankees in position to be the best run-prevention team ever in a DH league. Through 75 games, they have allowed 229 runs. With a good week, they could top this list...

A Good Start (fewest RA through 81 games, DH leagues only, non-strike years)

           Year     RA
Astros     2018    246
Angels     1989    261
Angels     1973    274
Yankees    1976    276
Orioles    1973    277     

...which would position them to top this one:

A Good Start (fewest runs allowed, DH leagues only, full seasons)

           Year     RA
Astros     2018    534
Athletics  1974    551
Orioles    1975    553
Mariners   2014    554
Orioles    1973    561  

The Yankees actually have a chance to do something that hasn’t been done since 1972, and hasn’t been done in a non-shortened season since the Year of the Pitcher in 1968. Since the first expansion in 1961, which brought with it 162-game seasons, just eight teams have allowed fewer than 500 runs. Two did it in 1972, when the players’ strike lopped a week from the season. (The 1972 Orioles allowed 430 runs in 154 games and somehow finished third in the AL East.) Six others did it from 1966 through 1968, when the strike zone was defined as “if the ball gets here intact, it’s a strike” and pitchers were airlifted to the top of the mound.

We still have quite a ways to go, but as they take the field in the Bronx today, the Yankees are putting together one of the best pitching seasons in baseball history.