The 2020 Yankees and Plate Discipline
By Andy Singer
Photo Courtesy of Bob Levey, Getty Images
The Yankees are coming off of their most embarrassing series of the season, having been swept with ease by the Tampa Bay Rays, and now Yankee fans and observers have an entire weekend to stew over the losses due to the cancellation of the series against the Mets due to COVID-related concerns. Prior to this past week, the Yankees were riding high, having won 6 straight games. 3 straight losses at the hands of the Rays while seeing the Yankee lead in the AL East shrink to nearly nothing was sobering, to say the least. The Yankees, admittedly decimated by injuries, were thoroughly outclassed by the Rays. Most glaringly, the once vaunted Yankee offense was hardly able to offer more than a whimper to combat Rays pitching all week.
The defeat has lead to many writers to do a lot of soul searching regarding the 2020 Yankees, including here at SSTN. Editor-In-Chief, Paul Semendinger, wrote haltingly about the fragile core of this Yankee team as it relates to expectations for future performance. Earlier on Saturday, Ed Botti wrote in depth about the Yankees’ general approach to hitting at as a team and his perception of its affect on the Yankees’ pursuit of championships. I highly recommend both posts, and there is certainly validity to their arguments.
However, I think we all need to take a deep breath. This is such a strange season on so many levels. While we are nearly 50% through the regular season, we are talking about a sample size of less than 30 games. That’s a statistical blip. I can find 30-game stretches for every Yankee on the 2020 team that would make you think that guy is either the team Most Valuable Player or Least Valuable player even within the same season (case and point: Gary Sanchez, everyone’s favorite punching bag this year). We can’t even reasonably evaluate changes the Yankees made to strength and conditioning this off-season, given the near-complete shutdown of team access during the lockdown followed by a tiny window within which players were asked to get back up to MLB-speed. Many of the statistics and injuries we’re talking about are products of variables and small sample size noise that are unlike any previous season in the modern era.
Despite this reality, one set of statistics that tend to stabilize relatively early on in a season is plate discipline, a point of contention for observers of the 2020 Yankees. Few complained about plate discipline with the “Next Man Up” Yankees of 2019, but it has been a much maligned part of the 2020 Yankee offense by many fans and writers. Is that perception backed-up by statistics? By digging into the raw numbers regarding plate discipline, we can begin to learn a lot about the way the 2020 Yankees are approaching their at-bats in 2020 versus 2019.
First, let’s look at the raw data for the 2019 Yankees and the 2020 Yankees, respectively:
2019 Yankees Plate Discipline, Courtesy of Baseball Savant (Click to Enlarge)
2020 Yankees Plate Discipline, Courtesy of Baseball Savant (Click to Enlarge)
Summarizing the Charts
There is a lot to digest about the above charts, so I’m going start by summarizing who the 2019 Yankees were as a team from a plate discipline perspective. The 2019 Yankees saw a below-average number of balls in the strike zone, and just 11 of the 21 players in the above chart swung at pitches in the strike zone above the league average mark of 66.1%. Just 8/21 players made contact with pitches in the strike zone in the ballpark of league average or better (Gio Urshela was just below league average at 82.2%, but I’ve included him because it’s pretty close). Of those players, just 6 still play for the Yankees in 2020. 12/21 players were in the ballpark or better of league average chase rates on balls outside of the strike zone, though numerous Yankees, including Gary Sanchez and Gio Urshela, were over 5% worse than league average at chasing pitches outside of the strike zone. 10/21 players swung at the 1st pitch at a rate above the league average of 60.6%. Generally, Yankee hitters saw meatball pitches (think middle-middle beach balls) at a higher rate than the 6.6% league average. Almost all Yankee hitters swung at those pitches at above-average rates, though notable hitters who fell significantly below those thresholds included Mike Ford, Brett Gardner, DJ LeMahieu, Gary Sanchez, and Giancarlo Stanton. Overall, while there was some swing and miss to the Yankees’ game in 2019, the team didn’t see a lot of pitches in the zone, and was asked to capitalize on the occasion that they did. Few would argue that the 2019 Yankees were unsuccessful in this department.
Again, the 2020 Yankees are seeing a below-average number of pitches in the strike zone, however notable Yankees seeing above-average numbers of pitches in the strike zone include regulars Gio Urshela and Luke Voit. 10/17 players have swung at an above-average rate of pitches in the strike zone. Notable exclusions from this list include Gary Sanchez and Mike Ford, who see a well below-average number of pitches in the strike zone, but also Brett Gardner and Tyler Wade, who see an above-average number of pitches in the strike zone. 9/17 players are in the ballpark of average or better contact rates on pitches swung at inside the strike zone. Of those 9 players, 5 are players that we would consider regular contributors. Just 6/17 players chase pitches out of the strike zone above the league average rate of 28.2%. Of those players, Gary Sanchez is the only regular, chasing 31.9% of pitches outside of the strike zone. Just 7/17 players are swinging at the 1st pitch at rates at or higher than league average, and just 3 are regular contributors to the lineup. 13/17 Yankees see meatball pitches above the league average rate of 6.6%. The only regulars seeing rates below that are Luke Voit (who is in the ballpark at 6.5%), Clint Frazier, and Gleyber Torres. Most Yankees are swinging at meatball pitches at league average-ish levels or higher, though notable exceptions include DJ LeMahieu, Brett Gardner, Mike Tauchman, and Gary Sanchez. The 2020 Yankees are relatively disciplined with regards to swinging at pitches inside the strike zone, and display patience through solid chase rates and noted hesitancy with regards to swinging at the 1st pitch in an at-bat.
Comparing the 2019 and 2020 Yankees
The Yankees were an offensive juggernaut in 2019. There are similarities to the approaches both teams display at the plate, however there are noticeable differences to the way in which the Yankees approach their at-bats in 2020. The most glaring difference is their passive approach on 1st pitches in comparison to 2019. The Yankees see a below-average number of strikes, so there is logic to an approach that asks Yankee hitters to stretch at-bats, forcing opposing pitchers to come closer to the strike zone while pushing hitter-friendly counts. Additionally, the 2020 Yankees have multiple hitters who are making significantly more contact with pitches inside the strike zone, including DJ LeMahieu, Aaron Judge, Mike Ford, Clint Frazier, and Gio Urshela. Few players are making less contact on pitches in the strike zone, though Gary Sanchez and Brett Gardner stand out as notable exceptions. Overall, the 2020 Yankees actually make more contact than the 2019 Yankees. Lastly, the 2020 Yankees have a similar number of players who swing at meatball pitches at close to average or better rates, though there were a much higher concentration of players who swung at well-above average rates of meatball pitches in 2019 as opposed to 2020.
On the whole, one could argue that the 2020 Yankees are actually both the better contact and more disciplined team when compared to the 2019 Yankee offense.
Conclusions and Prescriptions
Overall, the statistics show that much of the new hand-wringing over the 2020 Yankees’ offensive approach is relatively baseless, though I will say that if you had a problem with the Yankees’ offensive approach in 2019, you likely still have an issue with it in 2020. I’ve seen many try to claim that the Yankee offense has been different in 2020 than in 2019 with regards to plate discipline, but as a whole, that opinion does not hold up to scrutiny.
However, that does not mean that I think that the Yankees’ approach in 2020 is perfect; far from it. Anecdotally, I’ve been frustrated by the Yankees’ seemingly passive approach early in plate appearances this year, and the statistics back-up that perception. Also anecdotally, it seems to me that many of the meatball pitches that Yankee hitters get in 2020 are delivered on the first pitch of at-bats. Patience is a virtue both in life and at the plate, but I think that the Yankees would be well-served by getting a little more aggressive on the first pitch of at-bats. In particular, Brett Gardner and Gary Sanchez strike me as players who can stand to be more aggressive on the first pitch. Maybe not coincidentally, both Gardner and Sanchez have swung at meatball pitches at below-average rates in both 2019 and 2020. Their known passivity on 1st pitches could contribute to their below-average swing rates at meatball pitches. One way to jump start both Gardner and Sanchez could be to swing at more meatball first pitches. For Sanchez in particular, holes in the count are dug due to letting easy first-pitch strikes go, forcing a struggling hitter to come from behind in a majority of at-bats. The Yankee lineup looks a lot deeper if Gardy and Sanchez are hitting, and added aggressiveness could pay serious dividends.
While the perception exists that the Yankees are overly aggressive at the plate, the Yankees have actually been a relatively patient team since 2019, and have been even more so in 2020. The cure to snapping out of the offensive slump the Yankees have found themselves in recently could be some added aggression, particularly early in the count. Getting DJLM, Torres, Judge, and Stanton wouldn’t hurt either, but even without them, the tools exist for the Yankees to put a deep lineup on the field everyday.