The Yankees wouldn't be where they are in 2019 without the rise of Domingo German. The lanky 26-year-old righty leads the majors with 12 wins and has a tidy 3.38 ERA and 1.04 WHIP with 95 strikeouts in 88.0 innings this season.
This of course comes after a 2018 season where German had a 5.57 ERA and did not look like a big league starting pitcher.
German's emergence has even caught the eye of his former manager, Joe Girardi. In an interview with Mike Francesa, Girardi said, "He's been a blessing for the Yankees, and you think that [five] years ago, the Yankees traded for him and he went through some injuries, but gosh is he good now."
Indeed, German is very good now. The key to his success is an approach where even though hitters know what's coming, they just can't touch it.
German's curveball has been critical to his development into a budding star. It's always been his favorite pitch, but he has taken it to a new extreme this year. No starting pitcher in the American League throws more curveballs than German, who uses his hook 37.3 percent of the time. That's a slight increase from past years, but not a major change -- German has always been a curveball pitcher. So, what's different this year?
Hitters just cannot square up German's breaking ball, swinging and missing on 46.1 percent of their swings on his curve, which is simply mind-boggling. The pitch doesn't have an exceptional spin rate, and while it's fast at 81.5 mph, it's also not uncommon anymore for a pitcher to throw an 81-mph curveball. Instead, German misses bats through expert location. Take a look at the heat maps on his curveball in 2018 (left) and 2019 (right), via FanGraphs:
Interestingly, German's curveball has been all over the place in 2019, but in a good way. Last year, his curve was predictable, with him placing it almost strictly down and away from righties. This year, it is trending out of the zone a little more, which likely explains the increase in chase rate. Hitters know the curveball is coming, but they don't know where it will end up, which keeps them guessing.
In addition to his snappy curveball, improvement in German's other pitches has also helped him make the jump. His walk rate has declined from an untenable 5.65 BB/9 in 2017 to a better, but still below-average 3.47 in 2018, to a very solid 2.15 BB/9 this year. Additional command of his fastball and changeup means that hitters must respect his curveball more, and can no longer spit on it. They've got to swing, and the 46.1 whiff rate and .141 batting average against on the pitch speaks for itself.
German still has a couple of things to work on, though.. He has not improved his hard-hit percentage or home run totals from last year, and some of his advanced metrics (FIP, SLG, wOBA) suggest that he's pitching a bit over his head in some respects. To truly take the next step and become an ace, German will have to give up less hard contact and home runs.
Girardi also mentioned that the Yankees will need German in the playoffs, and it's hard to argue. German, however, has never thrown more than 123 innings in a season and has a checkered injury history. The Yankees may benefit by moving him into the bullpen once the division is locked up, or even during the playoffs. New York is undefeated with the "opener" this season, and German could be a good candidate for a bullpen game if the Yankees fail to acquire a starting pitcher.
Of course, German provides maximum value for the Yankees when he's pitching, not when he's resting. It'll be a tightrope, but in a weak starting pitcher trade market, they will have to do whatever they can to keep German fresh for the biggest games of his life, and the biggest games of the Yankees' season.
The Yankees will look to add a starting pitcher at the deadline, but the fact remains that -- however improbably -- the 2019 team has had their best chance of winning when German is the starting pitcher.