There are plenty of reasons why the New York Yankees lineup keeps pitchers up at night. The Bronx Bombers have a potent combination of power bats, on-base threats, and even the guys who can’t claim to be either are tough outs. You simply don’t get a break.
Gleyber Torres hit 38 home runs last season, earned MVP votes, and has been an all-star in each of his two full MLB seasons. He hits seventh.
For all of the obstacles you have to navigate on a trip through this group, there are two that still stand out: Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. It’s been easy to forget that this is the pairing that drives the Yankees offence considering Judge and Stanton have missed a collective 273 games in the last two seasons - but they’ve been reminding the baseball world lately. In Game 1, the pair combined for two home runs and drove in five.
In four playoff games, they’ve cleared the wall seven times and brought in 14. Stanton, in particular, has been a menace to all opposing pitching -- and in Game 2 he hit a home run that pushed the limits of what a human being can do to a ball with a baseball bat.
In the Yankees’ last nine playoff games featuring the pair, they’ve gone 8-1 and scored 70 runs, their only loss coming on Tuesday. They have enough threats that you can keep the twin towers down and still get burned, but if you can’t contain them, you’re out of luck.
The question is where that leaves Tampa Bay Rays starter Charlie Morton in a pivotal Game 3. Morton is coming off a season where he posted his worst ERA (4.71) since he was with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and lost 1.4 m.p.h. on his four-seam fastball. He still misses plenty of bats, and his peripherals suggest he’s out-pitching his ERA, but his Statcast numbers have gone from outstanding to unimpressive.
Morton simply isn’t the same guy who finished third in Cy Young voting last year, and unfortunately for the Rays he’s also exactly the kind of pitcher Stanton and Judge like to feast on. This season, 89.1 percent of Morton’s pitches were either fastballs (four-seam and sinker) or curveballs -- pitches that the Yankees dynamic duo have routinely crushed in their careers.
This pair has hit a collective 412 home runs to this point, and 286 have come on these three offerings. If Morton goes with his regular mix, he’ll be walking right into the lion’s den.
He does have one arrow in his quiver that might just be a fit for the Herculean task of keeping these two down, though. Specifically, his splitter.
Suggesting a pitcher lean on a pitch he threw 2.2 percent of the time during the regular season when the chips are down may seem like a drastic move. In this case, however, it might be Morton’s best bet to do what no one else has managed this post-season.
That’s true for two reasons.
The first is that Morton’s splitter is a sneaky good pitch. The offering has above-average movement both vertically (plus-7 per cent) and horizontally (plus-69 per cent), and that combination of drop and run makes it a very pretty pitch when he puts it in the right spot.
Perhaps more importantly, the splitter has been the most difficult pitch for both Stanton and Judge to hit historically, perhaps due to their rare height making it tough to reach a ball that’s almost exclusively thrown below the strike zone.
Not only do the numbers suggest these guys struggle with the pitch, on film they simply don’t look comfortable. Take Stanton’s confrontations with Shun Yamaguchi this season as an example.
Yamaguchi finished the season with a 8.06 ERA, and his splitter is inferior to Morton’s by velocity and both horizontal and vertical movement. And yet, the Japanese right-hander was able to tie Stanton in knots with his splitter whether it was in the strike zone…
… or well below it.
Similarly, Matt Shoemaker -- whose splitter is also objectively inferior to Morton’s on velocity and both types of movement -- made life difficult for Aaron Judge, primarily low in the zone.
If this pair of right-handers can hurt Judge and Stanton with the splitter, there’s no reason Morton can’t as well. Not only is his splitter better on paper, his other weapons are also more dangerous, which -- along with the element of surprise -- would help it play up.
Because the veteran uses his off-speed pitch so infrequently, it’s unfair to assume he can command it reliably -- but sprinkled in at the right moments it could be the difference between surviving the massive sluggers and succumbing to their colossal raw power.