When most people think of the strikeout, they think of a big time fastball. That perception is backed up by the fact that most of the players at the top of the all-time strikeout leaderboard are known for their heat, including Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, and Walter Johnson. That does not mean that the fastball is the only way to go. The 2014 New York Yankees are second in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings (k/9), while throwing the fastball less than anyone but the San Francisco Giants. They have accomplished this by having a pitching staff full of unique pitches and skill sets.
Since it is typically the easiest to control, and sets a baseline for offspeed pitches to come off, the fastball has always been the most frequently thrown pitch. However, no pitcher has ever gotten by with just an ordinary fastball, even the legendary flamethrowers. Clemens had a split-finger, Randy Johnson had perhaps the best slider ever, and Ryan had a big curveball. Walter Johnson may have relied most heavily on his heater, but he also threw with a ridiculous sidearm delivery that would probably terrify even modern batters.
This year’s Yankee staff has thrown fastballs only 50.5 percent of the time. That number is not only second lowest in baseball, but the latest example of a trend for the team. New York’s fastball percentage has been below 60 percent every season under current pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who took over before the 2011 season, and has decreased each year under him. The Yankees’ strikeout rates have also steadily increased under Rothschild, converse to their fastball rates.
A good deal of the team’s shifting strategy is due to the nature of their pitching staff. CC Sabathia no longer throws in the high-90’s. Same for Michael Pineda since his arm surgery before his Yankee career even began. Hiroki Kuroda is throwing slower as he approaches 40 years old. Still, even those who still throw heat, like this year’s bullpen ace Dellin Betances, are not overusing the hard stuff. Betances and Masahiro Tanaka, two of the league’s best at racking up strikeouts, have such dominant secondary pitches that it simply makes sense for them to shy away from the fastball. Betances curveball and Tanaka’s splitter are two of the best pitches in baseball, and the Yankees are making sure they do not save them only for two strike counts.
Even David Robertson, who formerly threw fastballs as much as 80 percent of the time, has greatly reduced his reliance on the pitch through his years under Rothschild. He now gets much more use out of his curveball, and this year he is on pace not only to shatter his career high for strikeouts per nine innings, but he is second in the league in that stat and is on pace to put up one of the ten best k/9 seasons ever. In fact, he and Betances both are currently striking out more then 15 batters per nine, something that has only been done five previous times with a minimum of 50 innings pitched.
The trend is strong enough that it seems to be a conscious strategy in New York, and the approach is working. Not only are the Yankees near the top of baseball in total strikeouts, but they have stayed above average in ERA and lead the majors in strikeout to walk ratio despite the spate of injuries to befall their pitchers. It certainly helps having a talented bullpen and frontline starter like Tanaka, but Rothschild is due some credit. He has done a great job having his pitchers take advantage of their strengths. How far the team can take this strategy remains to be seen.
Commentary by Brian Moore
Guardian Liberty Voice Sports Writer covering New York Baseball
Member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America