Yankees takeaways: Matt Blake on pitching woes, trade deadline needs, prospect to watch

TORONTO — Panic set in during the top of the second inning of Sunday’s game.

New York Yankees left-hander Josh Maciejewski, recalled from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on Sunday, began warming up in the bullpen after Gerrit Cole’s 14-pitch first inning. Cole and Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake were not seen in the dugout while Maciejewski warmed up, leading to speculation Cole might have reinjured his elbow.

However, all is well health-wise for Cole, who pitched five innings and allowed just one run against the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday. His fastball touched 97.5 mph and averaged 95.8 mph. Maciejewski was warming up because he didn’t have the opportunity to do so before the game, as he was en route to Toronto after the team designated Phil Bickford for assignment.

The Yankees’ pitching staff ended June on a high note, but the month as a whole was brutal. They finished with the second-worst ERA and WHIP in MLB. They had the worst BB/9 ratio in MLB and gave up the fifth-most home runs.

Looking deeper at some advanced metrics would have suggested this was possible. The Yankees entered June with the best ERA at 2.77 but only had the 10th-best FIP. Their .252 BABIP was the lowest in MLB; the league average through May was .286, meaning the Yankees were somewhat lucky. They stranded 79.7 percent of base runners, over 8 percentage points higher than the league average. Blake isn’t surprised the Yankees’ pitchers have struggled lately.

“Natural attrition, natural regression,” Blake said. “Probably over-performing to a certain extent. If you look at the peripherals, there was probably some level of run prevention that was beating what you would expect to happen.”

Let’s review the current pitching concerns:

Starting pitchers

Blake said he doesn’t have any long-term concerns about the rotation, but two pitchers are worth highlighting: Carlos Rodón and Luis Gil.

Rodón has allowed 20 earned runs in his last three outings, with opposing hitters boasting a video game-esque 1.253 OPS during this stretch. Teams are feasting on his fastball. Against Toronto, he showed a potential game plan that could work by mixing in more off-speed and breaking pitches, adjusting his sequencing.

“I think it’s being ready to adapt your plan early because it’s clear that teams that can hit the fastball are targeting him early,” Blake said. “If you know that going in, and you’re trying to bully those teams, it’s gonna be hard. You’ve got to be willing to adjust your plan and move to different areas and change speeds. That’s the art of pitching. At some level, you’ve just gotta be willing to adjust, and he is. … You’re not asking him to be crafty, but you’ve got to have a better rhythm than that.”

During his time with San Francisco, Rodón was among the league’s top power pitchers. From 2021 to 2022, his 12.23 K/9 was the best in MLB. This year, Rodón’s K/9 is down to 8.84. His fastball has a mere 19 percent whiff rate this season, down from 27.9 percent in 2022.

One of the main reasons Rodón earned $162 million in free agency from the Yankees was his fastball, which propelled him into becoming a National League Cy Young Award contender for consecutive seasons. However, he is no longer consistently overpowering hitters with his fastball.

“If the league is adjusting — it’s just like when Gerrit got here — he had to adjust,” Blake said. “The league knows who you are. The league is practicing a different way. There are more guys like him who throw the ball hard with good profiles and you’re more aware of that. There’s just less room for error with that stuff. Even if that’s how you got paid, that’s not necessarily your map for success down the road. The more we can adjust and adapt to the league and the sooner we can do that, the easier it is. We’re not giving away what you’ve done to this point, but we’re honoring what the league is trying to do to you now.”

Gil doesn’t have an issue with his fastball, as opposing hitters have a 30.3 percent whiff rate against his four-seamer. His three recent starts have not been sharp, partly due to mechanical inconsistencies. Gil has issued 10 walks and hit three batters in his last 10 2/3 innings pitched.

Just two weeks ago, Gil seemed a potential starter for the American League in the All-Star Game. Though those talks have quieted, he remains a contender for American League Rookie of the Year. More importantly, the Yankees must preserve him for October. In his first season after Tommy John surgery, Gil is 10 innings shy of his heaviest workload in any professional baseball season. Observers wonder whether Gil is reaching a plateau, with his recent struggles possibly due to fatigue. Though there is no innings limit for Gil, his health remains under close observation.

“It’s noisy when we’re not playing well and he’s not throwing well and it’s like, ‘OK, are we on top of what we need to be on top of as a group?’” Blake said. “We feel good about that, he says he feels good, you continue forward. Obviously, when things change, you’ve got to make an adjustment. So I think that’s kind of how we’ve approached it so far.”

Bullpen woes

The Yankees are still seeking the right bullpen mix. A team source told The Athletic the organization is actively scanning the trade market.

In recent weeks, the Yankees have acquired various relievers in hope of finding a standout or two. Michael Tonkin has emerged as one of their top relievers, but additional reinforcements are needed.

“I think we’re always looking to find the best mix of guys out there,” Blake said. “There’s some guys out there that we’ve liked over the years, Tim Hill being one of them. I think we’re trying to find the right mix of guys out there for the balance of right- and left-handed lanes. Hopefully, you can find someone you can tap into with some of these guys. I think we’re just trying to cycle through guys and see what sticks, and obviously, right now it’s been a little bit of a higher volume of turnover than we’re used to.”

An area the bullpen needs to improve is strikeout rate. It’s been an issue all season. The Yankees entered Sunday 23rd in bullpen strikeout percentage and K-BB%.

“At the end of the day, swing-and-miss is the highest probability outcome of not (giving) up runs, so if you can avoid letting them put the ball in play, it’s nice,” Blake said. “If you can add that, that’s great. But at the same time, I don’t think we need to add that. If the guys go out there and do what they’re supposed to do, limit the damage and don’t walk guys, the strikeouts should be fine. Now, obviously, if you’re going to give up slug or you’re going to walk guys, then you need strikeouts. So really it just comes down to balancing those three areas. If you guys are gonna put the ball in play, we can’t walk guys in front of that.”

Prospect to watch?

One player to monitor as the season progresses is Triple-A right-hander Jack Neely.

The 6-foot-8 reliever has 56 strikeouts across 35 1/3 innings in Double A and Triple A. With the Yankees needing more swing-and-miss out of the bullpen, the 24-year-old could help solve that problem later in the season.

“We’ve had conversations about Jack and how he’s doing,” Blake said. “He’s in the mix. Obviously, when he was in Double A we were a little bit cautious of making a big jump to the major leagues. Getting him to Triple A was important, and now getting him innings there. I’m sure he will be in the conversation for the second half at some point.”

(Photo of Carlos Rodón: Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)

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