JA Happ, Lance Lynn, and the Yankees’ Pitching Philosophy

In case you aren’t already aware, the Yankees do not like to throw fastballs. It’s not some industry secret – it’s out in the open for everyone to see. Yet, the front office went out and acquired two of baseball’s most frequent throwers of fastballs in JA Happ and Lance Lynn. Besides those two, the only pitcher that goes to the fastball more often is Bartolo Colon. Yet, Happ and Lynn are in the organization’s hands now, so a change in either pitcher’s approach can’t be ruled out.

To get an idea of what the Yankees might do with either of their newest pitchers, we can look to last summer when the Yankees added Sonny Gray, also a historically fastball heavy pitcher. Though Gray wasn’t quite a reliant on the pitch as Happ or Lynn, he did throw the offering roughly 60 percent of the time in Oakland. The thing that Gray also has is a curveball with a very high spin rate, which ostensibly enticed the Yankees to alter how he attacks hitters. I wrote about this earlier in the season, though it hasn’t turned out as fruitful as the Yankees had hoped. Happ and Lynn aren’t Gray, though, and not only because they throw their fastball even more often. Rather, the two hurlers the front office acquired in this past week are rentals, whereas Gray was seen as a rotational piece for the next few years that the team could mold in its vision. Aside from other factors, the time of control likely will be a big influence on how Happ and Lynn are handled.

Happ has already made one start in pinstripes, and if it’s indicative of anything, it’s that he’s not making any changes. 75 of his 96 pitches against the Royals were fastballs, which is consistent with his past. The southpaw has been just fine with this routine for a few years now, so why try to fix it especially with only a dozen or so starts remaining? It doesn’t appear that his secondary offerings (slider and changeup) are anything special according to Fangraphs’ Pitch Values, anyway. Furthering the status quo argument is his slider spin rate, which is a well below average 2,206 RPM. Spin rate isn’t everything, but it is one indicator of pitch quality. As the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Happ has been good and it doesn’t seem like there is much room for improvement. Plus, he’s only around for a couple of months, so now’s not the time to make drastic adjustments.

Then there’s the case of Lynn. Lynn cuts and sinks his fastball, but doesn’t have much else to offer. His main secondary pitch is a curveball, though he also rarely throws a changeup. The curveball, which he’s thrown just under ten percent of the time this season, doesn’t appear to be anything to write home about based on pitch values. It’s got a very low spin rate (2,223 RPM), which is ranks 292nd of nearly 400 pitchers. For what it’s worth, the pitch does have a .153 wOBA and .168 xwOBA against this year, but that appears to be an aberration compared to last year (.302 / .309). Like Happ, there doesn’t appear to be a growth opportunity for Lynn by using his breaking ball more often. Not to mention this:

If “own plan” translates to fastball-centric, then it doesn’t sound like Lynn would want to make a change.

Either way, Lynn appears to be more of an insurance policy, while Happ is of greater importance. Happ not only adds to the rotation for the rest of the regular season but will also be expected to make postseason starts. Meanwhile, there isn’t a spot open in the rotation for Lynn at the moment, so he’ll likely take Adam Warren’s vacated bullpen spot. Perhaps Lynn is better suited as a reliever with his fastball-heavy9 approach considering that he wouldn’t have to turn the opposing lineup over multiple times. Lynn’s fastball velocity is up this year, and perhaps it could go up more in shorter outings.

With Happ and Lynn, it doesn’t look like we’ll see a new style coached like we saw with Gray. Obviously, these are different circumstances given Gray’s promising curveball and his future with the team. If the Yankees want to get the most out of Happ and Lynn, particularly the former, sticking to the current path makes the most sense. The rotation needs a steady hand, and it certainly appears that Happ can provide that as is. Lynn doesn’t seem like he’d be amenable to a big adjustment anyway (plus he doesn’t seem like a good candidate for it). In all likelihood, the Yankees would prefer differently styled pitchers, but given what is available on the trade market, it seems like they have no choice but to buck the internal pitching philosophy.

Pitch usage and values per Fangraphs. Statcast data via Baseball Savant.

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