Going Deep: Domingo German’s Minor Tweaks Are Producing Major Results
I’ve always liked Domingo German. Well, from an abstract, “I love baseball” perspective, because as an Orioles fan, I’m sworn to hate all Yankees or else the ghost of Earl Weaver will scream profanity while he strangles me in my sleep.
But German is a really interesting guy because he has a really impressive repertoire. This past offseason, I wrote about him as one of the five pitchers in all of baseball to throw more than one Money Pitch, putting him in the same company as guys such as Max Scherzer and Jacob DeGrom.
And it’s justifiable. His two Money Pitches from last year (his curveball and changeup) were beautiful pitches to watch. But two pitches don’t make a great starting pitcher, and he definitely wasn’t that last year, posting a 5.57 ERA, 4.39 FIP, and 1.33 WHIP spending time as both a starter and reliever.
So it’s been quite a surprise that, so far this year, German has been pretty excellent, posting a 2.60 ERA, 3.12 FIP, and 0.98 WHIP through nine starts. Normally when a shift this big happens, it’s one of two cases—either the pitcher made a big noticeable change, such as in his delivery or adding a new pitch, or he’s getting lucky.
But German’s case is slightly different: He’s made some changes, but they’ve been subtle. For the most part, German’s success has been a combination of slight tweaks and positive regression. So today, I’m going to take a look at what’s the same, what’s changed, and what still needs work.
What’s the Same
For the most part, almost everything is the same for German. And that’s what was confusing to me about him at first—I wanted to see some major skill change or something that’s explained his success so far, and it’s just not there in his batted-ball data (with a few exceptions, which I’ll get to).
Barrel rate? About the same (5.1% last year, 6.0% this year). Ground-ball rate? Same deal (37.4% last year, 39.2% this year). Fly-ball rate? It’s down a little but not a ton (40.4% last year, 36.5% this year). Hard-hit rate? Again, right around the same (36.6% last year, 38.9% this year, per Statcast data).
And repertoire-wise, there’s been one consistent this year: His curveball is still awesome.
It’s once again a Money Pitch this year, posting even better numbers than it did last year, with a 43.8% chase rate, 47.5% zone rate, and 20.7% swinging-strike rate, alongside a 9.7 pVAL, so far the best pVAL of his career by a longshot.
Like I said, there’s a lot that’s the same for German this year, especially in his batted-ball data. But where the changes are happening that I believe are contributing to his success this year are related to the command of his two fastballs.
German throws two fastballs, a four-seamer:
And a sinker:
So far this year, German has been throwing his sinker a bit less (13% this year vs. 17.3% last year), which is a good thing because it’s definitely his worst pitch. But he’s still making fewer mistakes with it, as he is with his four-seamer, and that really shows up in the pitch-split data:
What’s the big thing you notice there? The massive difference in ISO. That .337 ISO for his four-seamer last year was absolutely disgustingly terrible, but a .229 average is pretty good. What that says to me is that the pitch is fine but German had trouble commanding it, often laying it in there by mistake for a big hit (same deal with the sinker to a lesser extent).
But now, that ISO has dropped (though .194 still isn’t great) while the average against his four-seamer has stayed pretty good. The average against the sinker has dropped a bit too, but you still don’t really like .276.
All of this has lead to one of the most notable changes in German’s batted-ball data: a drop in HR/FB rate. Last year, his HR/FB rate was 15.8%, this year it’s 9.3%, which is a much more reasonable number.
The other big thing that’s changed? He’s causing more pop-ups. Overall, his infield fly-ball rate has jumped up from 9.1% last year (which is about league average) to 13.8% this year, and that’s mostly been thanks to his changeup and sinker. Last year, German’s changeup posted an 18.8% infield fly-ball rate; this year that’s jumped up to 66.7%. Similarly, his sinker posted a 6.7% infield fly-ball rate last year and a 50% infield fly-ball rate this year.
What’s Still Concerning
To this point, you might be thinking, “Sweet, German’s controlling his pitches better, he’s finally breaking out! This is legit! Ben, you’re a genius!” Aside from that last part, that’s not entirely true.
There are a few things that still concern me about German and make me think some negative regression is in order. One of the biggest concerns is his aforementioned changeup:
Last year, like I said, that pitch was a Money Pitch, posting a 44.1% chase rate, 52.6% zone rate, and a 19.7% swinging-strike rate. This year? Not so much. The chase rate has dropped to 38.2% (which is still a very good chase rate), the zone rate has dropped to 39.5%, and the swinging-strike rate has dropped to 12.9%.
And remember how German had that ISO problem with his four-seamer last year? He had the same problem with his changeup, as hitters had a .233 ISO against it last year. Basically, hitters often swung and missed the pitch, but they laid into it too. Unfortunately, that’s still a problem this year, as the pitch is giving up a .207 ISO so far. In other words, while German isn’t making as many mistakes with his fastballs, he’s still making them with his changeup, and on top of that, it’s not as good a strikeout pitch.
There’s also some luck involved here. If you noticed in the tables about the fastballs, he’s seen a switch in his expected vs. actual stats. While last year his actual stats were worse than his expected, that’s flipped, and his expected stats now suggest regression. Add that in with a .229 BABIP on the year so far alongside a 3.86 SIERA, and I think you should temper your expectations for him going forward.
So Can I Trust Him or What? I Need Answers
Unfortunately, the answer I’m going to give you is just tepid support. I like what German throws; I’ve always been a believer in trusting a guy’s stuff, even when things aren’t exactly working out. That doesn’t always turn out well, but more often than not, I think that’s something you can rely on.
Plus, I like what German’s done with his game so far. He’s made some strides commanding his fastballs, and as a result, he’s making fewer mistakes. When you’re pitching in the AL East in a bunch of homer-friendly ballparks, you can’t afford to make mistakes.
That being said, I think it’s pretty clear there’s some regression in order based on his BABIP, SIERA, and expected stats. I don’t think it’s enough regression to say that German’s going to blow up and be terrible, but I also don’t think you can expect a sub-3 ERA the rest of the way. I think something somewhat closer to his 3.86 SIERA (maybe a slight bit lower if he keeps the home runs under control) is more what you can expect, alongside a decent strikeout rate.
That’s still absolutely a useful pitcher in fantasy, so don’t dump him. However, if you can find someone who thinks this is his breakout year and he’s a total stud, sell high for sure. But otherwise, I think you can count on German the rest of the way. Just know that there are going to be some bumpy days ahead when the regression kicks in.
Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire