What Will the Yankees Do To Help Junior Fernandez?
Another Pirates reliever has been picked up by the Yankees, and his name is Junior Fernández, owner of 54 career innings pitched in the majors with St. Louis. Louis and Pittsburgh. This past season, he finished with a 5.79 FIP in 18.2 innings; His career FIP sits at 5.57, so he hasn’t had much success in the league so far. So what exactly do the Yankees see in him?
Like many relievers in the Yankees’ bullpen, Fernández throws high-velocity sinkers and boasts an above-average ground ball rate: 58.9%, a very similar clip as Jonathan Loáisiga. That all sounds very similar to another Yankees pickup from the Pirates: Clay Holmes. But Holmes’ sinker is of the turbo ilk that forces its way down with bowling ball action; this past season, the vertical movement on that pitch was 21% above league average. Fernandez’s is much more vertical neutral. In fact, the comparison to Loáisiga is much more appropriate. The table below shows how Fernandez’s sinker specs compare to Loáisiga’s:
|Name||Pitch||Measured Spin Axis||Extension||Vertical Release||Horizontal Release||VAA||HAA|
The two pitchers have similar extension, release points, and movement profiles. The entry into the zone in terms of horizontal and vertical approach angles isn’t all that far off either. Overall, we’re looking at very similar pitches, and Fernandez throws his even harder by about a tick. This alone is a good starting point to explain why the Yankees were interested enough to scoop him up off waivers.
If the sinker is anything close to Loáisiga’s, then there is something to work with. When located correctly, the pitch is effective against both lefties and righties because it is so difficult to get your barrel under the baseball. But that location isn’t so simple. Finding consistency with your mechanics and release point can be a long process, and clearly, that’s still a work in progress for Fernández.
To get a better idea of why, let’s take a look at his mechanics. The following three pitches all come from various games in the first week of October when Fernández had a chance to get consistent volume:
Sinker below the zone (Oct. 1)
Sinker for an arm side ball (Oct. 3)
Sinker on arm side corner (Oct. 3)
Each of these three pitches are in different areas of the strike zone. Fernández missed low and arm side but also dotted a perfect sinker in the low corner that is ideal for getting groundballs against both lefties and righties. His general inconsistency in and around the strike zone can’t be attributed to one specific thing, but just looking at his mechanics, something feels off. He starts off in a closed-crossed body position but ends up with an extremely open stride that takes him to the opposite side of the mound. The result is 98th-percentile fastball velocity but sporadic sinker location. When he arrives in the Bronx, that will have to be the focus.
There are a few things about Fernandez’s delivery I’d like to dive a little further into. The first is that his lower half mechanics are highly dominant quad. As he descends into his hip hinge, his back knee falls far over his toes. Other pitchers don’t find themselves in this position until later in their delivery, or not at all. In fact, on the spectrum of high-velocity throwers, these are extremely dominant quad mechanics. That isn’t necessarily a bad or good thing; If you can throw this hard while moving as such, then it indicates you have a unique skill. Just looking at Fernández’s legs, you can see he has tree trunk quads, so perhaps relying on these muscles isn’t too big a of a deal. But it’s important to keep this movement in mind when assessing the rest of his mechanics and understanding his stride direction.
With a quad dominant and closed setup, it’s surprising to see his stride move to the other side of the mound. The second clip where Fernández misses arm side is a perfect example of that. He sets up closed but immediately removes that aspect from his delivery as soon as he lifts his leg. His hip direction completely shifts, and he descends down the left half of the mound. This takes some reliance off his quads and puts in into his hips, and by the looks of it, it doesn’t appear he has super-mobile hips in either direction in terms of internal and external rotation or a deep hip hinge. While it’s possible this is more of a feature than a bug, I wonder if it makes it harder for his body to stay controlled down the mound, and as a result, costs him slight command of his release. Right now, his lead leg block is strong enough to absorb all his energy and still throw in the upper 90s, but if he had a slightly more closed stride, it could make it even easier on his lead leg to control his deceleration.
I think it’s risky to make any drastic changes to a player who throws this hard moving the way he does, but the command issue is enough to me that it may be worth slightly tweaking some aspects of the delivery as long as there is no significant negative effect on the power output. He seems strong enough that a change in direction shouldn’t completely compromise his velocity. If the Yankees are to get more out of him, they will have to do something to find more consistency so he can improve his command.
At this point, I haven’t focused too much on Fernández’s slider or changeup. The slider is of the super gyro kind, yielding -112% horizontal break below average. It is quite literally as gyro as a gyro ball gets, and he throws it around a third of the time. The changeup is a pitch that closely mirrors his sinker in terms of HAA and spin axis, which is also similar to how Loáisiga uses his changeup. Fernández, however, used the pitch sparingly in 2022 (10.2%). With Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake known as being somewhat of a changeup savant, it wouldn’t be surprising to see that pitch trend back up in the mix if Fernández still has a feel for it. Overall, these two pitches will be important, but the new Yankee’s success will be heavily dependent on the sinker.
While we never quite know exactly what a team will do with a reclamation project, the Yankees have some historical precedents that suggest refining the sinker will come first, and the rest of the arsenal will be rebuilt around it. Like I said earlier, this is much more of a project than Holmes was, but unlike his case, the team will have Fernandez for all of their spring training. It will be interesting to see what changes he immediately makes, and if Blake and his team truly do have the special sauce for fixing high-velocity sinker ballers.