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Yankees Vulnerable to Unjuiced Ball Regression

The significant increase in home runs in 2019 (a new record was set that was an 11% increase over the previous record set in 2017) has generated a huge amount of controversy. A MLB report concluded that 60% of the increase was a result of a change in the seams with the remaining 40% a result of players changing their launch angles (to create more fly balls and home runs).

It’s unclear what MLB will do (if anything) about this but it’s certainly a possibility that the baseball in play in 2020 will not be the “juiced” ball.

While all hitters benefit from a more home run prone ball, borderline players who became average or better may benefit even more.

The Yankees have several players who had career highs in home runs in 2019. Let’s take a quick peek at each of them:

DJ LeMahieu – DJ hit 26 home runs in 2019, 11 more than his career high of 15 in 2018 (and that was in Colorado). This 2019 power surge took DJ from a league average player to an all star. The Yankees are already in the black on his 2-year contract (which ends at the end of this season), but I’d bet on some regression if the ball gets unjuiced.

Brett Gardner – Gardner hit 28 home runs in 2019, which is seven more than his previous career high. He is the master of the “just over the right field wall” golf shot. If the ball in 2020 loses just five feet of carry, I would not be surprised to see his home run total (and his value) plummet.

Gio Urshela – Last year, Urshela hit 21 home runs in only 476 plate appearances at the age of 28. He hit just six home runs in 2015 in 288 plate appearances which was the only other year he spent any real time in the majors (it was also his first year in the majors). Urshela had decent power in the minors (13 home runs in 430 plate appearances in AAA in 2014), so he does have some power, but the production from last year was a huge surprise to all. Whether he is a power hitter going forward remains to be seen especially if the ball is less airborne-prone.

Mike Tauchman – Tauchman hit 13 home runs in 296 plate appearances last year. He only had 69 plate appearances in the majors prior to that season so there is no basis for comparison here. He did hit 20 home runs in 471 plate appearances in AAA in 2018, so he does have some power. Again, it remains to be seen if he has this type of power on a consistent basis in the Major Leagues.

Conclusion:

Brian Cashman’s Yankees have made a business out of plucking diamonds from other teams in the past few years. It has allowed the Yankees to compete even though they have had horrific spates of injuries. It has also allowed them to avoid trading prospects for marginal, expensive veterans. How much of this was luck, how much was skill, and how much was the juiced ball remains to be seen. But this certainly bears watching in 2020 and beyond. If these four players all regress in 2020, the Yankees could have a problem on their hands.

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