Yankees Magazine: Expect the Unexpected

Domingo German’s rise to the top of New York’s rotation has surprised everyone but himself

September 6th, 2019
New York Yankees

 loves horses. He has since he was 14. His late uncle cared for the animals and other livestock on a ranch in Alejandro Bass outside of San Pedro de Macorís in the Dominican Republic. There, German assisted his uncle, looking after the horses and riding them around the property. It was time well spent after the teenager quit playing baseball.

“I still love horses,” German, now 27, says with the help of Yankees bilingual media relations coordinator Marlon Abreu. “That’s my favorite animal. I still have a passion for horses. So, I did that for about a year.”

Long before German surged to the top of the Yankees’ rotation, his days as a ranch hand were the product of unprophetic youth league coaches who refused to let him take the mound. German grew up playing all over the diamond, “but I didn’t really like it.” His friends, however, would marvel at his arm strength whenever they threw together, and so, sometime around age 12 or 13, he decided he wanted to become a pitcher. Coaches balked at the idea, though. “I really don’t know why,” German says, still perplexed and mindful of the irony.

The stubborn youngster insisted that he was going to pitch, or he wasn’t going to play. And so, German gave up the game for nearly a year. “Come back, come back!” his friends would tell him as he passed them on the ballfields. It didn’t take long for him to miss the game, but he was only going to return if he could do what he wanted.

A short time before his 17th birthday, German got the help he needed. He began training with two older friends -- pitchers who had previously signed professional deals. They never came close to the bright lights that now illuminate German’s performances, but they did have connections. German had only been practicing for a few weeks by the time they lined up auditions for Major League clubs. The first few bullpen sessions yielded 85-mph fastballs and concerns over a too-slender frame -- today, German is listed at 6-foot-2, 175 pounds -- but the Marlins were able to see his potential. Just four days after he turned 17, the skinny kid who wasn’t allowed to pitch in youth leagues officially signed with Miami -- as a pitcher.

“It was very exciting, very surprising,” he says. “When I went home and told my parents, nobody could believe it because it happened fast after I decided to become a pitcher. I had only been training as one for a short time. I couldn’t believe it myself!”

Flash forward to present day, and the parallels are obvious. German was not supposed to be a member of New York’s pitching staff when Spring Training began; he certainly wasn’t expected to anchor it if the team hoped to contend. Yet, as others have battled injury and inconsistency, German has been the most reliable starter for a Yankees club that has spent the majority of 2019 atop the American League East. Much like his younger days in the Dominican Republic, German has gone from afterthought to sudden success.

This time, he’s not surprised.

New York Yankees

German made his first start of the 2019 season for the Yankees on April 1 against Detroit. The outing could be categorized as “effectively wild” -- he got the win and allowed just one hit and one run to go with seven strikeouts, but he also issued five walks over five innings. German offered glimpses of the untouchable stuff he displayed as a rookie starter in 2018, but also the control issues that made him, in the minds of some, better suited for the bullpen.

The Yankees didn’t have much of a choice, though. With on the injured list for what became most of the season, they needed someone to fill that void in the rotation. They would have to settle for whatever bad came with German’s good.

It turns out there has been very little bad to come out of German’s right arm this season.

After improving to 16-2 (.889) on Aug. 13, he became the Major League leader in wins and winning percentage. German’s 3.96 ERA, 112 ERA+ and 1.10 WHIP led New York’s starting staff, as did his 7.9 H/9, 2.0 BB/9 and 4.77 K/BB ratios.

The number that surely pleased his coaches, however, was German’s 26 walks, also best among Yankees qualifying starters. He yielded more than two walks in a game just one more time after the Detroit game back in April. Compared to last year, German’s BB/9 rate and overall base on balls percentage were significantly down, while the percentage of pitches he was throwing for strikes had gone up. He’s no longer effectively wild. He’s just effective.

German’s refined command is no accident. Well aware of his numbers last year -- which included 3.47 BB/9 -- he made it his “mission” to be more consistent in his sophomore season. With that in mind, he made subtle changes to clean up his delivery with the help of pitching coach Larry Rothschild over the winter. He also worked on his mental approach, focusing more on every pitch and not allowing any outcome, good or bad, to disrupt him. “You want to have the same kind of energy no matter what,” he says. Another big difference? That would be increased experience, which in turn has fed German’s conviction on the mound.

“It’s not a surprise,” German says when asked about the seemingly out of nowhere season he has had, “and the reason why is because I had confidence in myself.”

That belief goes both ways, with Yankees manager Aaron Boone having the utmost trust in his young starter. “We have a lot of confidence in him,” Boone says. “And certainly, he’s pitching with a lot of confidence. When you have his repertoire and the ability to fill up the zone like he can with all his pitches, there’s good reason to walk out there with confidence.”

Severino and German in the Yankees dugout.New York Yankees

For some on the outside looking in, German’s success has been unexpected; he’s one of several previously unheralded players who have, against all odds, simultaneously risen to the challenge after the injury bug infested the Yankees’ roster this season. Those who have watched German over the years saw this coming, though.

“I mean, I’m not that impressed,” Severino says, and he’s dead serious. “I always thought he was good like that.”

German and Severino grew up two hours apart in the Dominican Republic, so it was not until the 2014 All-Star Futures Game in Minnesota that the two crossed paths. Both played for the World Team that year. German was still with the Marlins’ Single-A affiliate, while Severino -- two years younger -- had made his way to High-A Tampa on the Yankees’ farm and was just days away from moving up to Double-A. German went up to Severino and introduced himself prior to the exhibition before they tossed one shutout inning apiece. German struck out two that afternoon, blowing a 95-mph fastball past future NL MVP Kris Bryant before fooling slugger Joey Gallo -- an All-Star with the Rangers this season before getting hurt -- with a change-up. At the time, both batters were already in Triple-A. It was then that Severino first realized just how nasty German could be.

A bit more than five months later, the two were members of the same organization. The Yankees sent David Phelps and Martín Prado to Miami that winter in exchange for Nathan Eovaldi, Garrett Jones and German. Eovaldi was deemed the prize pitcher of the package, with Jones providing pop off the bench while filling in at first base and in the outfield. German, meanwhile, was little more than a promising unknown.

“We had a number of scouting reports that, let’s say _if_ he reaches his future potential, we’d be very pleased by that,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said after the trade was announced. “It’s great to add another lottery ticket, so to speak, into that prospect category for us, and I know our people are very excited to add a prospect with his physical tools into our system.”

Five years later, the Yankees could not have asked for a bigger payoff at a more crucial time.

Naturally, Severino was the first person German reached out to when the deal went down. He said that German, then 22, didn’t handle the trade all that well at first, which is understandable for a young player who had only known one organization.

“It was a bit sad at the beginning,” German admits. “That was the only team I had known at the time. But time cures everything and I started learning that this is a possibility in baseball, that you can get traded. I started to get to know new people, new coaches, so eventually it turned to [feeling] happy and excited.”

Severino adds that while he has never been traded, “It’s got to be a tough situation. You don’t know anybody there. It’s going to be a little bit awkward. But that was the best thing for him. He’s one of the best pitchers in the big leagues right now.”

German is still mindful of the lessons his father taught him when he was a kid. Also named Domingo, the elder German was a member of the Dominican army’s baseball team, an outfielder talented enough to gain some notoriety in San Pedro. He taught his son to concentrate, and steered his gaze toward players such as Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martínez. “He saw those guys as someone to maybe model your son after,” says German, who owned a No. 2 Yankees jersey growing up. “Those guys were the popular players at the time and provided an example for us.”

Now a big leaguer himself, German often appears subdued on the mound. Flickers of emotion happen here and there, but for the most part, he’s all business, always looking “to maintain a level head,” he says. “You gotta stay collected and cool.” Very little fazes him, as seen in his Sunday Night Baseball outing on July 28. He saved the Yankees from a four-game sweep at Fenway Park that night, limiting Boston to three earned runs while striking out nine over 5 1⁄3 innings. It was a relatively stellar start following a disastrous week in which Yankees starters had surrendered 48 earned runs over 26 innings. Determined to stop the bleeding, it was also German’s response to the worst start of his career, an eight-run shellacking in Minnesota on July 23.

German’s father also taught him that pain is not always an excuse, a lesson that reared its debatable head earlier this season. After starting his campaign with a 2.60 ERA, German endured a three-start stretch from May 26 to June 7 in which he allowed 14 earned runs and seven dingers in 142⁄3 innings. His ERA ballooned to 3.86.

It turned out German was trying to pitch through a hip flexor strain. He declined to tell the Yankees’ training staff at first. His performance suffered as a result.

“It’s normal,” says bullpen coach Mike Harkey. “If you’re going to play at this level, you’re going to need to learn to pitch being a little uncomfortable. He felt it was something he could handle and pitch through, and for a couple starts he actually did. It just kind of got to him, and he obviously needed a break.”

That break was actually a blessing in disguise for the Yankees, as it gave German some time off that was going to be required anyway. German has twice fallen just shy of 124 innings in a professional season; he threw 123 1⁄3 in 2014, the year before he missed his entire first season in the Yankees organization while recovering from Tommy John surgery, and 123 2⁄3 in 2017. He has never thrown more than that and is indeed on a limit this season, though Boone and Cashman have declined to reveal that magic number. As was previously the case with Severino in 2017, big jumps are permitted, but German was at 120 frames, all levels included, following his start on Aug. 13.

“He already had his timeout,” Cashman said during a WFAN interview at the beginning of August, a nod to German’s IL stint between June 8 and July 3. “That certainly cushioned the blow. You’ll have to watch how the season plays out, but that certainly allowed us to get the breather in there on the arm and the innings limitations that come with it.”

The general manager later added that there will be no cap on German in October should the Yankees make the postseason.

That’s key for the Yankees because they are going to need German down the stretch. The rotation has struggled to hit its stride outside of the young hurler, and New York did not add any reinforcements at the trade deadline. The hope is that Severino returns before the postseason and that everybody else straightens out, but German is the closest starter the Yankees have to a sure thing right now.

“We’ll probably get to a point where, as we get some guys back, we may alter some things,” Boone said after German twirled seven innings of two-run ball against Baltimore on Aug. 13. “But honestly, we feel like he’s strong right now and has a lot left in the tank.”

German echoed those sentiments and previously hinted that he didn’t want to do anything that would throw off his routine during the last two months of the season. Ultimately it won’t be his call, but it’s understandable, thinking back to the coaches who wouldn’t let him pitch as a kid, that he has no desire to slow things down now.

“No grudges at all,” German says when asked how he feels about those coaches today. One is even a close friend and a frequent recipient of equipment donations. “He tells me, ‘I should have listened to you before.’ I guess if there’s something to be learned, it’s that sometimes you’ve got to listen to a young person that’s telling you something. That maybe it is in fact the right move, letting that person do what he actually wants to do.”