Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s pitch mix settling, but still evolving

It’s unlikely that there is a team feeling better about their rotation at present than the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Tyler Glasnow looks excellent. James Paxton has been solid and, more importantly, healthy. Gavin Stone’s peripherals look better than even his decent-enough output suggests. Walker Buehler is back. And the group isn’t quite healthy yet, either, as Bobby Miller and a handful of swingmen are on the IL. The group is performing well and running deep.

To say nothing of the rapid adjustments from Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

Nobody was ready to smash the panic button over Yamamoto’s Dodgers debut back on March 21st. Although his one inning of five-run ball wasn’t the most inspiring start. Now eight starts into his Dodger career, the button remains un-smashed, even if he has yet to realize the dominant form he was purported to possess.

If there was a given in Yamamoto’s transition to Major League Baseball, it’s that there was going to be an adjustment period. And even more likely, there were going to be tweaks to his usage. Considering the pitching infrastructure that the Dodgers possess, their staff was going to get him deploying his arsenal in the most effective – and efficient – manner possible. Such an adjustment was expected in short order, too, considering his upside.

The Dodgers are still waiting for Yamamoto to assume the form that such upside suggests. But in the meantime, the adjustment period hasn’t made Yamamoto any less fascinating, especially from a usage standpoint. 

Yamamoto’s arsenal coming over & his debut in Seoul suggested a regular presence from his cutter. He threw it a quarter of the time against the Padres in that start. The San Diego hitters were aggressive on it, though, swinging at the 11 cutters more than the 32 other pitches he threw that inning. Their hard hit rate against it was 100 percent. 

Since that point, Yamamoto has ditched his cutter seemingly altogether. It spiked to seven percent against the Mets on April 19th and to roughly nine percent on Tuesday against the Miami Marlins. Other than that, it’s taken a very notable back seat to his other offerings. 

More notable still is the introduction of a slider. Yamamoto didn’t throw it in his first six starts. It made its first appearance in Arizona last week before popping up again on Tuesday. He hasn’t thrown it a lot; he threw three of them against Arizona & four against Miami, according to Baseball Savant. You’re not going to find high impact in such a miniscule sample. But it seems important to draw attention to Yamamoto’s effort to work in a fourth pitch on some level. 

We don’t know what that fourth pitch will be. But a specific distribution is starting to emerge in the larger context.

The four-seamer is the primary, the splitter is no. 2, and the curveball is his third pitch. That’s been the distribution in each of his last three starts. His previous starts were much more scrambled than that, especially as he struggled to gain command of the fastball. But a pitch mix that is starting to stabilize is at least somewhat indicative of a starter that is beginning to gain some comfort. 

While he did allow a pair of homers on Tuesday, Yamamoto was also very efficient. He hadn’t even cracked 40 pitches by the time the fourth inning started and ended up throwing 97 across eight innings of work. Seventy-three of those were strikes. The Marlins swung at 60 percent of pitches but drove the ball into the ground at a 54.2 percent clip. 

That’s sort of what you’re hoping for in the interim between Yamamoto’s adjustment period and Yamamoto’s impending dominance. Using the fastball to get ahead and the breaking stuff to either generate whiffs or groundballs. Whiffs being the longer-term goal, of course.

It’s a trend that has become a bit more prominent in his most recent trio of outings. And while that fourth pitch remains a wild card, the idea that Yamamoto is growing more comfortable with his mix at least bodes well for the next stages of his transition.

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