The Yankees are perhaps better equipped than most organizations for scouting in the year of Covid, when evaluators can’t enter ballparks to lay eyes on an upcoming opponent.
For several years now, the Yanks have used video and data to supplement traditional scouting reports. They are not alone in this hybrid, high-tech style, but were heavily invested in it before the pandemic forced scouts off the road.
While Aaron Judge, Brett Gardner and others starred on the field in embarrassing Cleveland ace Shane Bieber and winning Game 1 of the Wild Card series, 12-3, the team’s advance crew were also heroes of this massive win -- and they did it without the typical benefit of watching Bieber in person in the weeks leading up to the postseason.
Bieber will win the American League Cy Young Award this year, but you wouldn’t know it from watching him allow seven runs in 4.2 innings on Tuesday.
“We made it real tough on a great, great pitcher,” manager Aaron Boone said.
How did the Yankees do it?
The team’s scouts and analysts studied video and data. Hitting coaches Marcus Thames and P.J. Pilittere convened a long hitters meeting, during which they admonished all Yankees to follow the same plan -- a path the players had strayed from at times this season. And hitters like Judge and Gleyber Torres stayed up late in their hotel rooms, watching video on their iPads.
The plan: Swing at fastballs early in the count, and sit on breaking balls low and out of the strike zone. It was a combination of aggressiveness and patience, and it worked.
Bieber is a master of mixing his pitches, with a cutter, curveball, and slider that feature elite movement. His four-seam fastball is good, but not overpowering. This season, it averaged 94.1 miles per hour.
The conventional wisdom heading into this game was that the Yankees should work the count and force Bieber to throw too many pitches. If they could get him out of the game by the sixth inning, they’d have a better chance against the Cleveland bullpen.
Immediately after the game began, it was obvious that the Yankees’ advance team and coaches had proposed a more nuanced approach.
In the first inning, leadoff hitter DJ LeMahieu singled on a third-pitch fastball. Judge followed by homering on a first-pitch fastball, giving the Yankees a lead they would not relinquish.
We asked Judge if it was difficult pivoting in the moment to an early swing in the at-bat, when the plan was to work the count.
“Yeah, but that’s why I got out of bed this morning, to get that pitch,” he said. “It’s about trying to hunt those mistakes. A guy like that who can throw a lot of pitches for strikes, has good offpseed and gets a lot of strikeouts on his offspeed -- every time you get something that's out over the plate, it’s kind of just a reaction. You react to it and try to get the barrel on it. That’s kind of what happened there. DJ was able to get on and set the tone, and I tried to do the same thing.”
It helped that, for most of the night, Bieber did not feature his sharpest breaking ball. But the Yankees let him get away with very little. A notable example was Torres’ six-pitch walk in the fourth inning, which began with a cutter and ended with five consecutive curveballs.
Torres took all of them.
Wasn’t that challenging to sit on so many Bieber breaking balls? How did Torres muster the discipline?
“Just be patient,” he said. “When I saw all the breaking balls I [thought], ‘I don't want to swing at that.’ I was just looking for the pitch I can hit and do my job for my team.'"
That patience turned out to be key, because it set up the double that Gardner hit next -- on a first-pitch fastball.
“That’s the key for Bieber,” Boone said. “If you’re going to have a chance against him you need to make quality swing decisions. I feel like we did that all night long.”
All told, seven of the nine hits off Bieber came on fastballs. The Yankees trapped their opponent into the dreaded cliche of being beaten by not throwing his best pitch. If Bieber was going to lose a game, he’d surely rather do it by throwing his all-world slider or curve.
That’s not the way it happened. The Yankees’ triumph was a credit to the rank-and-file in the organization, starting with advance scouts and analysts, filtering to the coaches, and implemented by focused players.