Yankees get a look at new top pitching prospect

New York Yankees
Feb 26, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA; New York Yankees manager Aaron Boone (17), second baseman Gleyber Torres (25), center fielder Aaron Judge (99) and starting lineup stands for the National Anthem against the Atlanta Braves at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Following the trades of Ken Waldichuk and Hayden Wesneski, 2021 8th-round pick Will Warren was suddenly thrust into the spotlight for the Yankees. This may seem as if Warren is just the best pitching prospect in their farm by default, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. 2022 was Warren’s first in professional baseball, and yet he took massive strides that allowed him to reach Double-A last season. While he still has plenty of work to do as he develops, his pitch repertoire is beyond impressive.

In his Spring Training debut against the Atlanta Braves, we got to see what makes Warren so nasty, and I don’t think it’ll be the last we see of him in pinstripes. The Yankees have a talented pitcher in Will Warren, but what makes him so exciting?

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Best Breaking Ball in the Organization?

Will Warren’s sweeping slider has made headlines across many prospect sites, and the data backs up the hype. Let’s start by defining what a “sweeper” is, as it’s a variant of a slider that prioritizes horizontal movement instead of vertical drop. Initially, the gyro slider (the vertical drop-centric variant) and the sweeper were viewed as just two categories. Still, a better way to evaluate sliders would be to put them on a spectrum, as not all sweepers or gyro sliders are created equal. For example, last year Clarke Schmidt threw a slider with ~9″ of horizontal break in the mid-80s, which wouldn’t make it a sweeper, but it also isn’t a gyro slider.

Let’s keep the theme centered around the Yankees; Michael King throws a true “sweeper” with over 18″ of horizontal sweep, but it clocks in at just 82.3 MPH, making it a slower slider that relies more on movement. For a true gyro slider, look no further than fireballer Albert Abreu, whose slider can reach 90 MPH but only gets 2.5 inches of horizontal sweep. For context, Clarke Schmidt’s cutter has similar movement horizontally, so in some regards, we could compare Abreu’s slider more to a cutter than either Schmidt’s baby sweeper or King’s whirly.

(Albert Abreu is still a RyanGarciaESM narrative guy)

How does this all relate to Will Warren? Well, it’s the fact that his slider defies the league-wide trend we see in baseball for the relationship between velocity and movement. Velocity for sliders comes at the cost of movement, as we typically see that whirly sliders with larger movement profiles come in at lower velocities. This isn’t a trend unique to the Yankees, as the league-wide velocity difference between a gyro slider and a sweeper is drastic:

  • Sweeper: 81.5 MPH
  • Gyro: 85.4 MPH

This makes sense, slower pitches have a longer flight path to the plate and thus have more time to generate movement. Stuff+ favors a sweeping slider, but it should be noted that what works for one pitcher won’t always work for another. The Yankees do love sweeping sliders, but they have pitchers like Gerrit Cole, Albert Abreu, and Richard Fitts who are better off with gyro sliders. With the drawback being velocity for a sweeper, let’s look at the upside, which is that elite horizontal movement:

  • Sweeper: 15″ Horizontal Movement
  • Gyro: 2.5″ Horizontal Movement

Gyro sliders can’t generate that same level of movement as a sweeper, but if you’re throwing a near-90 MPH slider, you aren’t going to lose much sleep over it. Will Warren however seems to have bridged the gap between velocity and movement with his slider, getting the best of both worlds with what might be one of the best breaking balls in the Yankees’ organization.

  • 85.4 MPH
  • 16.5″ Horizontal Movement
  • 3,014 RPMs

I don’t want to make it seem like I’m exaggerating just how unique of a slider Warren possesses either, so I’ve also graphed his slider movement with other pitchers across MLB. It should be noted that I couldn’t include MiLB arms, so there’s still a chance there are other arms in baseball that possess a similarly unique slider. With that being said, when we evaluate sliders thrown at or above 85 MPH, we see that no Warren sticks out like a sore thumb:

Will Warren can be identified as the red dot on this graph, and we see that among all sliders thrown at or above 85 MPH, not a single one possesses more sweep. A pitch with unique positive qualities will perform really well since batters won’t see a pitch like it in other matchups across a long 162-game season that could extend into the postseason as well. While modern technology means you can get a machine to throw 85+ MPH sweepers at a batter, hitters will tell you there’s still a difference between a pitcher and a machine.

This graph also shows us the inverse relationship between horizontal movement and velocity, as you typically see that higher velocity sliders struggle to generate as much sweep as their slower counterparts. This doesn’t make them worse pitches, just the tradeoff that comes with velocity both ways. The Yankees may favor the sweeper, but that doesn’t mean they’re always the solution. When we expand the graph to include velocities below 85 MPH as well, we see just how much of a unicorn Warren’s slider is.

Alongside the greater emphasis on the inverse relationship we previously touched on with sliders, we see that across baseball, Warren’s slider is simply different than any slider we saw in 2022. That bodes well for its success at the Major League level, and when we run his slider specs through Cameron Grove’s Stuff Grader, we see just how dominant of a pitch it really is. Clocking in at a 65-grade pitch in terms of stuff, it’s in the top 10% for all sliders in baseball.

Having a ~140 Stuff+ slider is wicked, and with his ability to throw it for strikes, it’ll be a force to be reckoned with. He fits the mold of what the Yankees like in a slider, but more importantly, he has confidence and a feel for what is a nasty pitch. Spending this much time breaking down what defines a sweeper or a gyro slider can be confusing to follow, but the conclusion is simple: Will Warren’s slider is gross.

It moves like a wiffleball with the firm velocity of a tighter gyro slider, giving it all the benefits of both pitches without nearly as many drawbacks. His slider is his money pitch, but it’s not as if it’s the only thing he has going for him either. With a diverse pitch mix and lower arm slot, the Yankees are looking at someone with some serious upside as a frontline starter.

Rounding Out a Repitoire

As previously mentioned, how a slider plays off of your fastball matters a lot in its viability, and Warren possesses a sinker that plays off of his sweeper excellently. In 2022 he averaged 93 MPH on his fastball, but Spring Training showed us a higher velocity ceiling. His sinker specs are ridiculous, generating over 16″ of arm-side run, making it a perfect pitch to jam a right-handed hitter or generate a called strike due to its large movement profile. Batters tend to swing less at pitches with a lot of movement, and that allowed Warren to have a 31.4% Called Strike + Whiff% on the pitch.

Sinker-slider combinations are synonymous with the Yankees pitching development, and Will Warren fits the mold of what they like perfectly. With that being said, having two pitches with large movement profiles will lead to batters not swinging much against Warren, an issue that caused a crash in his K-BB% once he got to Double-A. After striking out over 30% of batters faced in High-A, Warren had just a 12.4% K-BB% with the Somerset Patriots, sporting a 4.02 ERA as well.

The fix to this isn’t having a worse sweeper or sinker in terms of movement, but rather instead adding pitches to his repertoire that are closer to the zero line for horizontal break. Staying close to the zero line horizontally means needing to have some distinguishable vertical deception, and that also helps against opposite-handed batters. In the Yankees’ home opener on Sunday, he showed off his four-seam fastball and gyro slider, and there’s a lot to like there.

Now, this pitch may seem like a sweeper, but at 89 MPH, it’s likely a hard slider that looks like it’s sweeping because of the camera angle. It profiles like a gyro slider but could also be classified as a cutter, but the objective of this pitch is to generate more swings in-zone and handle left-handed batters. With 4″ of horizontal sweep with similar vertical movement to the sweeper, they tunnel excellently off of each other and place batters in uncomfortable situations. The addition of this pitch should help his poor whiff and chase rates in 2023, but arguably the most overlooked pitch in his arsenal is his four-seam fastball.

He sat at 95.2 MPH while averaging over 2,500 RPMs of spin, but the impressive qualities of his fastball have little to do with the monster spin rates. Despite the great spin, he only gets 15″ of Induced Vertical Break (IVBs), which would fall under the “dead zone” range for a fastball. This is when a fastball doesn’t sink enough to be a proper sinker, nor does it generate enough carry to work well up in the strike zone, thus batters can read it well and do damage against the pitch.

(via Driveline Baseball)

We see that the middle range for Vertical Break between 10 and 15 is full of poor fastballs, and Warren would fall into that category. It seems that we should just write off the pitch as bad and incapable of finding much success, but upon closer inspection, we see that he releases from a nearly identical slot as Nathan Eovaldi, someone Yankees fans should be familiar with. Eovaldi had a higher-velocity fastball with much less spin, but just like Warren, his fastball shape struggles in terms of vertical break. With ~15″ of IVB, Eovaldi somehow had a solid four-seam fastball after returning from a second Tommy John Surgery.

new york yankees, nathan eovaldi
Sep 29, 2022; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi (17) throws a pitch during the second inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Throwing from a lower slot with your fastball can create deception since the batter will anticipate that the ball will drop significantly more than it actually does. A flat angle on a four-seam fastball as it approaches the plate increases strikeouts and weak contact, a concept measured in Vertical Approach Angle (VAA). Some of the most dominant pitchers in the last decade have flat Vertical Approach Angles with a dead zone fastball, with names like Craig Kimbrel, Chris Sale, and Max Scherzer all utilizing their unique arm slots to create flat angles and get whiffs up in the zone.

If the velocity spike for Warren at ~95 MPH is sustainable, he has a really good weapon for handling left-handed batters, who chased at under 18% of pitches thrown by Will Warren last year. The Yankees also love changeups, and Will Warren’s changeup gets over 10″ of vertical separation off of his four-seam fastball, which should also help induce swings and misses or chases out of the zone. The Yankees are going to monitor Warren closely this Spring and in MiLB, but how realistic is it for him to reach the Majors in 2023?

Can the Yankees Use Will Warren This Summer?

My cautious answer would be to wait until 2024, as while Warren definitely has the pitch repertoire to find success at a high level as a starter, it’s about refining pitch execution and command. As mentioned in my article discussing Schmidt’s aggressiveness in the strike zone, Will Warren has the elite-level stuff necessary to challenge batters. The Yankees also have a great infield defense, so the groundball rates he’s displayed should allow him to not only successfully generate weak contact but also turn them into outs.

The Yankees are going to work with Will Warren extensively, as he’s their best pitching prospect right now and has a serious shot to become a good starter down the road. In the situation where he doesn’t pan out as a starter, his stuff is so good that in a bullpen role, he’d most likely become one of the best relievers in the game. For now, it’s about continuing to sustain velocity gains and correcting the strikeout issues he had in Somerset last season. If he can do so early into 2023, I don’t imagine that the Yankees will hesitate to bring him to Triple-A.

If things go well in 2023 for Will Warren, he could be part of the 2024 rotation plans, or he could become part of the Yankees bullpen this summer. The Yankees won’t rush Warren if he isn’t ready, but they’ve shown early on in his career that they believe in him to succeed. Spring Training showed us a glimpse of the Yankees’ top pitching prospect, and hopefully, we see him in the Bronx sooner rather than later.