Arms Race: Yankees minors ride pitching to success
During the 2022 season, the New York Yankees minor league clubs experienced more across the board success than nearly any other organization in baseball. Combined between all of their affiliates and domestic complex league teams, Yankees minor league clubs posted a .561 winning percentage in 2022. Only the Tampa Bay
During the 2022 season, the New York Yankees minor league clubs experienced more across the board success than nearly any other organization in baseball. Combined between all of their affiliates and domestic complex league teams, Yankees minor league clubs posted a .561 winning percentage in 2022. Only the Tampa Bay Rays (.604) system won a greater percentage of their contests.
The biggest factor in the on-the-field success for the Yankees minor league clubs was how elite they were in preventing runs. Yankees affiliates allowed only 2,515 runs in 2022, by far the fewest of any organization in baseball. The Rays allowed 2,675 runs, the second-fewest in baseball but still 160 more than the Yankees.
New York’s minor leaguers were so much better at preventing runs than anyone else, that the gap between the Yankees and Rays is nearly the same as the gap between the Rays and the seventh-place team.
Both Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Double-A Somerset allowed the fewest runs across their classifications, while the Renegades gave up the third-fewest runs in High-A, and Tampa allowed the fifth-fewest runs among Single-A clubs.
It is helpful that generally the Yankees minor league clubs were among the best defensive teams in their respective leagues in myriad categories, but the soul of the run prevention success was the performance of the organization’s pitchers.
By the numbers
All four full-season affiliates saw their pitching staffs post a Groundout-to-Air Out ratio greater than 1.00, led by the Renegades at 1.11. While we do not have public access to minor league groundball rates, which would be a far better barometer to measure this, the skew toward more grounders than line drives and fly balls is a good thing for pitchers.
Even with extreme overshifts being banned in the minor leagues, batting averages on grounders in recent years have been in the range of .240, while line drives are closer to .650. This should be no surprise – whether you subscribe to the new school or the old school, the gold standard for hitting is a solid line drive up the middle for that reason.
That ability to get teams to hit the ball on the ground, combined with a strikeout rate of 26.5% for the four full-season affiliates sets the organization in great position to prevent runs. This combination is not a mistake, but rather the result of an intentional philosophy that has been taught throughout the system.
Pitching by design
In 2022, the slider variant developed by the Yankees pitching department, dubbed the “whirly” started to generate headlines thanks to a lengthy profile written by The Athletic. The Yankees commitment to this slider became evident to close watchers during the 2021 season, when pitchers throughout the system began working on the pitch.
Last year sweeping sliders, such as the whirly, increased in popularity around baseball for their ability to generate more infield flyballs – which are almost always converted to outs. Separate research conducted by Owen McGrattan and Ben Clemens of FanGraphs has found that sweeping sliders do not lead to more ground balls or swings and misses than other slider variants, but because of the additional pop ups, batting averages on balls in play is approximately 30 points lower for batters and pitchers of the same handedness (i.e. – a right-handed pitcher against a right-handed batter).
Taken as a holistic part of a pitcher’s entire arsenal, a sweeping slider can be even more effective when paired with a two-seam fastball.
A sweeper thrown by a right-handed pitcher moves right-to-left, while the two-seamer veers from left-to-right, giving pitchers the opportunity to fool batters with horizontal movement on pitches that look similar until it is too late. The two-seamer is a pitch designed to be hit into the ground, and its frequent use is the likely culprit for the organization’s strong GO:AO ratio.
What’s old is new
Technological advancements have greatly expanded our understanding of why pitches move and how to maximize that movement, and the Yankees have positioned themselves on the cutting edge of these developments. With a robust pitching department filled with innovative minds led by Director of Pitching Sam Briend, the state-of-the-art Gas Station facility in Tampa, and talented coaches on the ground at their minor league affiliates, the organization has developed some electrifying arms in recent years.
The sweeper and two-seamer pairing that has come in vogue is a callback to the “Sinker-Slider guy” that most pitchers were prevalent in baseball not that long ago. But much like in hitting, a lot of the "new school" approach is a slightly different take on the old school, just informed with different data and taught with different techniques. The ability to unlock data that was never available before like spin rates and how they effect the ball's flight has granted the baseball world with knowledge that has revolutionized pitch development.
The 2022 Renegades staff saw a ton of pitchers with this main repertoire – Will Warren, Josue Panacual, Beck Way, Matt Sauer, and Wellington Diaz to list just a few examples – and saw great success as a unit. But even with their similarities they have differences: Panacual's two-seam fastball is different than Warren's. Diaz's slider is different than Sauer's. Even with a similar arsenal, the approach is not one-size-fits-all. It's a rough foundation which can be built to suit each individual.
Baseball is a copycat sport, and the Yankees are hardly the only organization that is focusing on the sinker-slider combination. Other smart teams like the Dodgers, Rays and Astros have leaned into this, to name a few. What helps set the Yankees apart is the pitching department’s ability to teach their principles to players, and the pitchers’ ability to learn and execute -- as with many things, it's the people who make the difference.