Over the last few years, as sabermetrics and all that stuff has become more popular, batting average has become underrated. It used to be overrated — not making outs and having a high on-base percentage is still the single most important aspect of hitting — but the art of getting a base hit is definitely underappreciated these days. There is more to life than that of course, but getting a hit is a big piece of the offensive pie.
Last season, the Yankees hit a collective .242 with a team .285 BABIP, rates that ranked 24th and 26th among the 30 teams, respectively. Injuries have a little something to do with the team’s low average, but remember, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira aren’t exactly high-average hitters. Derek Jeter and the out of sight, out of mind Alex Rodriguez are, however. Well, kinda. A perfectly healthy Yankees squad might have hit a few points higher as a team, but not much. The team’s .307 OBP (23rd overall) would have quite a bit higher with good health, I’m sure of that.
The Yankees rebuilt their offense over the winter and back in January I explained how the new-look lineup will bring more a patient approach and, theoretically, a higher team OBP. That’s pretty important. The Yankees didn’t just make too many outs last season, they made too many quick outs. It’s not much of a coincidence that two pitchers (Derek Holland and Chris Archer) threw sub-100 pitch nine-inning complete games against New York last season after only one pitcher (Roy Halladay, surprise surprise) did in the previous ten seasons. The makeshift offense was an impatient lot last summer.
Along with a more patient and disciplined offense should come a group that hits for a higher average. How much higher? I don’t think we could say with any degree of certainty. As underrated as batting average has become, it is still tough to predict because it fluctuates so much from year to year. Robinson Cano is my go-to example: he’s a career .309 hitter who hit .342 in 2006 and .271 in 2008. Did his talent level change in those years? No, it’s just baseball. Weird stuff happens in a game built around hitting a round ball with a cylindrical bat onto a 2+ acre swath of grass. Here’s a look at the Yankees’ lineup and its batting average potential.
Likely to hit .290+
With Cano gone, I don’t think the Yankees have a single player you can comfortably expect to hit .300 or better in 2014. I mean, how many players around the entire league would you safely expect to hit .300+ this year? Cano, Joe Mauer, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen, Joey Votto … that’s probably it. Hitting .300 is hard and few guys can do it year after year, especially in age of declining offense. That’s not to say others won’t hit .300, we all know those guys won’t be alone. Like I said before, weird stuff happens.
The Yankees have two players who are safe bets for a .290+ average this summer and both were acquired in the offseason. Jacoby Ellsbury hit .298 last season (.341 BABIP) and is a career .297 hitter (.326 BABIP) , so he seems to be the team’s best hope for a .300+ hitter. I do think Yankee Stadium will work against him though. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great place to hit, but Yankee Stadium is a homerun park. Fenway Park is more conducive to a high batting average with the Green Monster and weird angles. The park factors at FanGraphs bear that out.
Carlos Beltran hit .296 (.314 BABIP) last season and .288 (.313 BABIP) over the last three years, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he hit .300 or better this summer. Derek Jeter hit .316 (.347 BABIP) in his last healthy season and the guy used to fall out of bed and hit .300, but he’s coming off a series of leg injuries and a lost season at age 40. He hasn’t looked particularly good in camp either, though I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt after missing almost all of last season. So much rust to shake off. Tough to know what to expect from him, but I don’t think many would be surprised if the Cap’n had a big going away year.
As for an out of nowhere .290+ hitter, I’d put my money on Eduardo Nunez, who seems like a lock to make the roster and play more than expected at this point. Nunez makes a ton of contact (career 92.8% contact rate) and he’s fast, two skills that lend themselves to hitting for average, especially in small-ish (~300 plate appearances) samples. I’m not saying he’ll do it, but if you’re looking for a Yankee to come out of nowhere to hit for a high average, Nunez is a good guess. For now, I’ll take Ellsbury and Beltran as the team’s best chances for a .290+ hitter with Jeter an honorable mention.
Likely to hit sub-.250
On the other end of the spectrum, there are a few Yankees we can count on for a low-ish batting average. Kelly Johnson hit .235 (.276 BABIP) last season and .226 (.284 BABIP) over the last three seasons. He’s the safe bet to finish with the lowest average among the regulars. Johnson’s offensive game is built around hitting for power, stealing bases, and drawing walks. I have no reason to believe 2014 will be any different.
Alfonso Soriano hit .255 (.289 BABIP) last season, including .256 (.286 BABIP) with the Yankees. Over the last three seasons it’s a .254 average (.289 BABIP). He’s right on that .250 bubble at age 38. Brian McCann (.256 AVG/.251 BABIP in 2013 and .252/.263 from 2011-12) and Mark Teixeira (.251/.250 in 2012 and .252/.258 from 2010-12) are right there with Soriano. Brian Roberts managed to hit .249 (.267 BABIP) in 296 plate appearances last season and has a .246 average (.275 BABIP) while batting injuries over the last four years. He’s probably the second safest bet for a sub-.250 average this season behind Johnson.
Likely to hit somewhere in the middle
This is a bit of a cop-out, because the vast majority of players hit somewhere in that .251-.289 range. Or at least most regulars do. Bench players and pitchers are another matter entirely. Soriano, McCann, and Teixeira will probably be on the low-end of this range, Ellsbury and Beltran will probably be at the high-end (if not over), and Brett Gardner (.273/.342 in 2013 and .268/.325 career) will be right smack in the middle somewhere. There’s really nothing sexy about hitting somewhere in the .251-.289 neighborhood. The extremes are far more interesting.
* * *
Last season, American League non-pitchers hit .256 with a .298 BABIP as the league average continues to drop. It was as high as .275 (.305 BABIP) as recently as 2006 and .267 (.300 BABIP) as recently as 2009, but down it goes. Ellsbury, Beltran, and Gardner give the team three regulars who you can pencil in for a better than average batting average with Jeter a possibility for a fourth. Others like McCann, Teixeira, and Soriano will be right around the average. Batting average is tough to predict, but based on their current talent levels and the last few seasons, the Yankees have six and possibly seven regulars likely to match or exceed the league average. Compared to last year, that’s pretty darn good.