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What is Ailing the Yankees Offense?

What is Ailing the Yankees Offense?

By Chris O’Connor

June 3, 2021

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If one were to tell me before the season that the Yankees would be 29-25 on June 1, I would have pointed to the pitching behind Gerrit Cole as the primary reason for the relative struggles. The 29-25 start is concerning, but not for the reasons I would have anticipated.

Their pitching on the whole has exceeded expectations, ranking third among all teams in both ERA and fWAR. This is not just the bullpen carrying the load, either: the starters are tenth in ERA and sixth in fWAR while the bullpen is third in ERA and fourth in fWAR.

Shockingly, the area in which the Yankees have struggled is offense. After ranking fourth in both runs per game and WRC+ in 2020, they are just 24th and 15th this year. I wanted to take a look at what areas they have struggled in, where they look sharp, and what comes next. Let’s start with the good.

The Good

The Yankees plate discipline is one of their biggest strengths as an offense. As a team, they are second in walk rate and have just the 11th highest strikeout rate. Though fans like to complain about the strikeouts throughout the lineup, the Yankees are not striking out a significant amount relative to the rest of the league. They swing at the fourth-lowest percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone, and that is not just because they are not swinging the bat at all: they are middle-of-the-pack in swing rate on pitches inside the strike zone. All of this demonstrates the obvious: the Yankees are one of the best teams in the majors at laying off balls and swinging at strikes.

When they do make contact, the Yankees are also hitting the ball exceptionally hard: they rank fifth in average exit velocity. They had the same ranking in 2020. While I do think exit velocity can be an overrated statistic (Gleyber Torres is one of the better hitters on the Yankees and has the fifth lowest average exit velocity in the whole sport), hitting the ball hard is always a good thing. These are not just driven by a few Stanton and Judge outlier missiles: the team ranks third in hard-hit rate (percentage of batted balls hit 95+ mph) after finishing tenth in 2020.

So if they are walking more than almost any team, not striking out an absurd amount, controlling the strike zone exceptionally well, and hitting the ball as hard as anyone, more frequently than almost anyone, what is the problem?

The Bad

A big part of the reason for their overall offensive struggles is the fact that the Yankees have been the worst baserunning team in the sport. It is not particularly close, either. They do not exactly have a lot of burners in the lineup, so the fact that they have the fewest stolen bases in the league (12) is not a big surprise.

But, they just have so many Little League-type mistakes on the bases that are beyond frustrating. They have been thrown out on the bases 26 times, five more than any other team. They have been thrown out at home plate 12 times, four more than any other team. And it is not like they are being particularly aggressive, either: not only do they have the lowest number of stolen bases attempts in the league, but they also have the lowest percentage of extra bases taken (like going first to third on a single or second to home on a double).

All of this leads to the fact that no team’s base runners score less frequently than the Yankees. This is mind-boggling, and perhaps my biggest frustration with the team and the coaching staff. They are easily the least aggressive team on the bases in the league, which is fine. They have not been an aggressive baserunning team for years. But the fact that they get thrown out more than anyone on the bases while being the least aggressive team begs serious questions about either the baseball IQ of the players on the team or the message of the coaching staff not getting through. Either way, not great.

The other big problem is where the Yankees are hitting the ball. They have the second-lowest percentage of hits being for extra bases, meaning most of their hits are singles. Much of this is due to their lack of speed, but also their propensity for hitting the ball on the ground: they have the sixth-highest ground-ball rate in the league. This is a major reason that, despite hitting the ball so hard, they have fallen to just 14th in home runs after being in the top five in each of the past four seasons. To quickly summarize: The hits that the Yankees generate are singles at a higher rate than all but one team, they have the second-highest walk rate in the league, one of the slowest lineups in baseball, and hit a very high percentage of hard ground balls. It is no surprise that the Yankees have hit into a league-leading 52 double plays.

Hitting the ball on the ground is not optimal. As double plays demonstrate, it is sometimes worse than striking out. The league wide batting average for ground balls is .226 with a .475 OPS. With the rise of shifts, improved defensive positioning, more athletic fielders, and the fact that ground balls usually become singles in the few times they get through, it is more optimal to get the ball in the air. On fly balls, the league batting average is just .229 but with an OPS of .922. It’s not like they are compensating for more ground balls with more line drives, either; the Yankees have the third-lowest line drive rate in the majors.

What Now?

Changing things up so suddenly, however, might be more fantasy than reality. Pitchers today are better than ever before and changing one’s swing mid-season to launch the ball is pretty much a non-starter. For some hitters, their swing has gotten them all the way to the big leagues and changing it after thousands and thousands of reps can have more negative effects than anything. At this point, the Yankees have to hope that their hitters start performing closer to the mean and revert up to their career norms. In the meantime, more ground balls leads to more singles rather than doubles, triples, and home runs. For a team that does not run the bases well (to put it lightly) and has seen their home run rate fall off, it is no surprise that the Yankees have struggled to get these runners home. Smarter baserunning would also help. While the Yankees are not a speedy team, there is no excuse for the routinely pathetic displays that they have had on the bases over the first two months of the season.

It can be argued that much of the Yankees’ struggles is due to poor luck and sequencing. For one, as Katie Sharp noted, 44 of the 62 homers that the team has hit have been solo. With a little better timing, those solo home runs can become three-run homers. They have the fourth-lowest OPS with runners in scoring position, which I attribute to their ground-ball heavy approach rather than a big strikeout problem. The Yankees actually lead the majors in OPS and WRC+ when down 0-2 in the count and are fourth and third in those categories when getting down to two strikes at any point in the count. This means that they do a relatively good job of putting the ball in play, but their propensity for ground balls (and double plays) have really done them in. It contributes to their 19th ranking in Fangraphs clutch score.

The clutch factor has proven to be a non-repeatable skill; it is more luck and randomness than anything, so perhaps the Yankees can get some better luck here as well. To boot, though the Yankees ranked 24th in clutch score in 2020, they ranked 8th in 2019. They are also scoring 0.30 fewer runs per game than we would expect from a team with their underlying hitting numbers, the second-highest underperformance of any team. Now, performing closer to the mean from this standpoint would only solve so much; their 4.06 “expected” runs per game would still be just 19th in the league. Plus, solely banking on more timely and optimal hitting is not a sound strategy.

The Yankees need to make a move, sooner rather than later, and Trevor Story has to be the guy in mind. A 28 year-old free agent to be, it is a near certainty that the floundering Rockies will trade him prior to the deadline. Story is a durable, two-time All-Star shortstop and will be the top position-player on the market. In an ideal scenario, trading for him means the infield could be Gio at third, Story at short, Gleyber at second, and LeMahieu at first, at least until Luke Voit returns from his injury. Many will wonder what this would mean for Voit, but can they really bank on him (or anyone else in the infield) staying totally healthy through the rest of the season? The AL East has turned into more of a dogfight than anticipated and the Yankees cannot afford to keep running out guys like Mike Ford and Rougned Odor on a daily basis if they want to keep pace in the division. In a worst-case scenario, having too many hitters is a good problem to have. Centerfield is another huge need for the Yankees, and the team could also use a legitimate Number 2 starter for the rotation. Story, however, is a certainty to be available and can inject life into the listless offense that the team has shown.

Brian Cashman has seemingly built this roster to win in a specific way: with good enough starting pitching, a deep bullpen, and the three-run homer. This comes at the expense of putting pressure on the opposing defense by running the bases well, which can make a major difference in close games. This can also make it difficult to win games when the three-run homer does not come, which has plagued the Yankees in the playoffs for the last few years. This approach certainly can work, but the Yankees affinity for ground balls shines, poor baserunning, and lack of clutch hitting has shined the light on the major flaws in this roster construction. Every team has flaws, but the Yankees seem to be playing into theirs more so than any other team.

I still believe that the Yankees are one of the more talented teams in the major leagues, but they need to make some changes to start playing like it.

#TrevorStory

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