Where does each 2017 Yankee hit the ball the hardest?

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Ever since Statcast burst on to the scene last year, exit velocity has become part of the baseball lexicon. It’s everywhere now. On Twitter, in blog posts, even on broadcasts. You name it and exit velocity is there. Ten years ago getting velocity readings of the ball off the bat felt impossible. Now that information is all over the internet and it’s free. Free!

Needless to say, hitting the ball hard is a good thing. Sometimes you hit the ball hard right at a defender, but what can you do? Last season exit velocity king Giancarlo Stanton registered the hardest hit ball of the Statcast era. It left his bat at 123.9 mph. And it went for a 4-6-3 double play because it was a grounder right at the second baseman.

That’s a pretty good reminder exit velocity by itself isn’t everything. Launch angle is important too, as is frequency. How often does a player hit the ball hard? One random 115 mph line drive doesn’t tell us much. But if the player hits those 115 mph line drives more than anyone else, well that’s useful.

The Yankees very clearly believe in exit velocity as an evaluation tool. We first learned that three years ago, when they traded for Chase Headley and Brian Cashman said his exit velocity was ticking up. Former assistant GM Billy Eppler once said Aaron Judge has top tier exit velocity, and when he reached he big leagues last year, it showed. Among players with at least 40 at-bats in 2016, Judge was second in exit velocity, so yeah.

With that in mind, I want to look at where each projected member of the 2017 Yankees hits the ball the hardest. Not necessarily on the field, but within the strike zone. Every swing is different. Some guys are good low ball hitters, others are more adept at handling the inside pitch, and others can crush the ball no matter where it’s pitched. Not many though. That’s a rare skill. Those are the Miguel Cabreras of the world.

Also, I want to limit this to balls hit in the air, because as we saw in the Stanton video above, a hard-hit grounder is kinda lame. Hitting the ball hard in the air is the best recipe for success in this game. The average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives last season was 92.2 mph, up ever so slightly from 91.9 mph in 2015. I’m going to use 100 mph as my threshold for a hard-hit ball because, well, 100 mph is a nice round number. And it’s comfortably above the league average too.

So, with that in mind, let’s see where each Yankee hit the ball the hardest last season (since that’s the most relevant data), courtesy of Baseball Savant. There are a lot of images in this post, so the fun starts after the jump. The players are listed alphabetically. You can click any image for a larger view.

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With the right field job up for grabs, Judge is still making adjustments this offseason

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)
(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

Know what’s a fun game? Trying to figure out which young Yankees player you’re most looking forward to seeing this coming season. The easy answer is Gary Sanchez and understandably so. He was incredible last year. But there’s also Greg Bird, who we haven’t seen in over a year. And Tyler Austin‘s opposite field power. We can’t forget Aaron Judge either. He hit some jaw-dropping home runs in his brief 2016 cameo.

Along with those jaw-dropping homers came a whole bunch of strikeouts. Lots and lots of strikeouts. Forty-two in 95 plate appearances, to be exact. A total of 7,718 players have batted at least 90 times in a season this century, and Judge’s 44.2% strikeout rate was third highest behind 2015 Joey Gallo (46.3%) and 2016 Madison Bumgarner (44.3%), so yeah. We knew the strikeouts were coming. We just hoped they wouldn’t be that bad.

Of course, we’re talking about 95 plate appearances here, and that’s nothing. Jose Bautista struck out 40 times in 96 plate appearances (41.7%) in his MLB debut in 2004, and by 2006, his first full big league season, it was down to 23.5%. Javier Baez went from 41.5% strikeouts in 2014 to 24.0% strikeouts in 2016. Neither of those guys was 6-foot-7, but with a little hard work and patience, it is possible to cut the strikeouts down to a more manageable rate.

Last offseason Judge spent a bunch of time with the organization’s hitting gurus working on various adjustments, and when he showed up to Spring Training, he had a brand new leg kick. I’ve used this GIF a bunch of times before and I might as well do it again. Spring Training 2015 is on the left and Spring Training 2016 is on the right:

Aaron Judge 2015 vs 2016

Judge had a much more pronounced leg kick last spring, and he also moved his hands down ever so slightly. The adjustments didn’t stop there either. When Judge was called up in August, his hands were even lower, and the leg kick wasn’t quite as big as it was in Spring Training. Check it out:

aaron-judge-adjustments

That ball cleared the visitor’s bullpen and landed about five rows deep in the left field bleachers. I just thought I’d mention that. Here’s the video if you’re desperate for a baseball highlight.

Anyway, that’s three versions of Judge in the span of 18 months. He added a leg kick, lowered his hands, reduced the leg kick, and lowered his hands some more. The adjustments are ongoing. Very rarely is there a magic fix. Do this one thing and everything will work out fine. It would be nice if that’s how it worked, but nah.

Judge is again hard at work this offseason, making adjustments in an effort to cut down on his strikeouts and become a productive big leaguer. And again, the lower half is the primary focus. Brian Cashman said Judge has been working to remain “calm” and “balanced” with his legs this offseason.

“Aaron was just at Yankee Stadium about a week to ten days ago,” said Cashman during a recent YES Network interview (video link). “(Hitting coach) Alan Cockrell was working with him on his lower half, and continuing the efforts and adjustments they started last year … The lower half is the final adjustment that they’re working through — his front side and staying clam and trying to stay balanced — and so I think that’ll help.”

It sounds like — and I could be completely wrong here — the Yankees and Judge are still trying to find a leg kick that works. They tried the big one in Spring Training and obviously that didn’t stick, because it was much shorter when he arrived in the big leagues. A leg kick is a timing mechanism, and if Judge improves his timing, it should help him cut down on the empty swings.

“He’s a big kid. Strikeouts are going to be part of his game,” added Cashman. “It’s just limiting them. He can’t have success and maintain a career at the big league level with that level of strikeouts. If we shave that off, we’ll take the power trade-off he’ll provide.”

The question is not the adjustments themselves or Judge’s effort level. He continues to put in the work and he’s shown the aptitude to make adjustments in the past. The question is where should he make these adjustments? Do the Yankees live with the growing pains at the MLB level, or send Judge down to Triple-A, where development is the goal and winning is secondary?

I guess we can’t answer that right now. The Yankees have more information than us, they know what’s going on behind the scenes, so this isn’t simply a case of watching some Spring Training at-bats and making a decision. Judge could rake in camp, but if the team doesn’t think he’s where he needs to be, they could send him down for a few weeks. It’s not like they’re short on outfielders. They can plug someone else in right field for the time being.

“His history in the last two years of promotion — at the Triple-A level and last year with us — was failure, adjustments, success,” said Cashman. “He experienced some failure at the Major League level. That whole experience in the short sample will serve him well as he approaches 2017 … He’s got options, so if he’s not quite ready, he gets to go down there and finish himself off, and wait until he’s ready.”

I mentioned this in last week’s mailbag, but Judge will be an interesting test case for the rebuild. How patient will fans be with him? And, more importantly, how patient will the Yankees be with him? We caught a glimpse of the potential reward last year. The balls hit off the top of the restaurant and over the bullpens. Judge is working to get to that level consistently, and the Yankees should remain patient and give him as much time as necessary, even if it means another stint in Triple-A.

The complicated arbitration case of Dellin Betances

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Last Friday, the Yankees signed all their arbitration-eligible players prior to the salary filing deadline except one: Dellin Betances. Betances, who is up for arbitration for the first time, filed a $5M salary with the panel. The Yankees countered with $3M. The $2M gap is enormous. In fact, it’s the second biggest gap in filing figures this offseason. (Drew Pomeranz and the Red Sox are $2.1M apart.)

Before we go any further, I should make it clear the Yankees and Betances are not automatically going to an arbitration hearing now that they’ve filed salary figures. They can still negotiate a contract of any size. Last offseason the Yankees and Aroldis Chapman were a whopping $4.1M apart with their filing figures ($13.1M vs. $9M), yet they hammered out an $11.32M deal before a hearing. The Yankees and Betances could do the same.

Now, that said, the Yankees and Betances have had difficult contract negotiations in the past. Last offseason the team offered a $540,000 salary, which was only slightly above the $507,500 league minimum. Betances rejected the modest raise because he believed he deserved more, so the Yankees renewed him at the minimum. Dellin took a stand, which was his right, and the Yankees renewed his contract at a salary of their choosing, which was their right.

Things are different this offseason because of arbitration, so if Betances is not happy with what the Yankees are offering, he can take them to a hearing and state his case. If it does get to a hearing — the Yankees haven’t been to an arbitration hearing since beating Chien-Ming Wang in 2008 — the two sides will make their arguments, and the three-personal panel will chose either the $5M or $3M for 2017, nothing in-between.

The big gap in filing figures tells us a few things. First and foremost, it tells us Betances and his representatives believe he deserves to be paid not just like a closer, but like a great closer. Consider that just last offseason, established closers like Jeurys Familia ($4.05M), Cody Allen ($4.15M), and Hector Rondon ($4.2M) all signed for less than Dellin’s filing figure in their first trip through arbitration. He’s looking for an unprecedented payday for a non-closer reliever.

Secondly, the filing figures tell us the Yankees are willing to pay Betances a top salary for a non-closer. That $3M is pretty damn high. Top setup relievers like David Robertson ($1.6M), Kelvin Herrera ($1.6M), and Tony Watson ($1.75M) all signed for way less than $3M in their first trip through arbitration. The Yankees are willing to pay Betances handsomely relative to other non-closers. He wants to be paid like a closer though. A great closer.

It’s important to note the arbitration process is very archaic. Things like WAR and FIP are pointless. Saves matter more than anything for relievers. Strikeouts are good, but not as good as saves. All-Star appearances matter too. Betances is going into arbitration with three All-Star Game selections, a handful of saves (22 to be exact), and a boatload of strikeouts. (Dellin led all relievers with 392 strikeouts from 2014-16. Andrew Miller is second with 326.) His case is strong, but it would be stronger with more saves.

How exactly did Betances and his representatives come up with that $5M salary? It’s not like they pulled a number out of thin air. Arbitration is based on the salaries of other players at the same service time level, and Dellin’s camp had to come up with a number they can defend in a hearing. Go too high, and the arbitration panel will side with the Yankees. This is where I’m guessing that $5M comes from:

SV IP ERA WHIP FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 bWAR fWAR ASG
Dellin at Arb1 22 254.2 2.16 1.00 2.06 39.8 9.9 48.3 0.57 8.3 8.5 3
Aroldis at Arb1 77 198.2 2.40 1.02 2.27 40.9 12.4 42.7 0.59 6.4 6.2 2

Aside from saves, Betances compares favorably to Chapman when he went through arbitration the first time. And what did Chapman make in his first year as an arbitration-eligible player? Yep, $5M. On the nose. Dellin’s camp will have to hope three years worth of inflation — Aroldis went through arbitration for the first time during the 2013-14 offseason — can make up for the lack of saves.

There is a big problem with the Betances-Chapman comp, however. Even beyond saves, I mean. Chapman was not a normal pre-arbitration player like Betances. He signed a six-year contract worth $30.25M with the Reds and pulled in $2M in base salary in both 2012 and 2013. Chapman actually opted into arbitration. His contract included a $3M salary for 2014, so he used the opt-out to go through arbitration, where he made $5M instead.

Chapman started with a much higher base salary, and that matters. Going from $2M in 2013 to $5M in 2014 is a $3M raise. Betances wants to go from $507,500 in 2016 to $5M in 2017. That’s a $4.4925M raise. Pretty big difference there, eh? Dellin’s camp can say he deserves $5M because his numbers match up with Chapman’s. The Yankees can counter by saying Chapman only received a $3M raise, so their $3M filing figure is more appropriate, especially when factoring in saves.

How did the Yankees come up with their $3M filing figure? I have no idea. As far as I can tell, no non-closer reliever received that much in their first year of arbitration. They’re offering him an unprecedented salary for a first year eligible setup man. Kenley Jansen, like Chapman, had numbers comparable to Betances in his first year of arbitration-eligibility and he received $4.3M. That was a $3.788M raise from the previous year. Dellin is asking for quite a bit more than that.

(Sean M. Haffey/Getty)
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty)

It’s easy to say the cheap ass Yankees are being cheap asses, and they should just pay one of their best and most popular (and homegrown!) players what he wants to maintain a good relationship, especially after renewing him at the minimum last year. After all, what’s another $2M when you’re running a payroll near $220M? They’re going to pay Brian McCann $5.5M to play for the Astros in 2017. Why nickle and dime Betances?

That’s not how it works though. Arbitration salaries are based on the player’s salary in the previous year, so it carries over. It’s not just $2M this year. It’s $2M this year plus whatever raises on top of that Betances will receive in the next two offseasons Let’s assume Betances will get $3M raises each year going forward. I’m just pulling that number out of thin air for argument’s sake. A $3M base salary means his three arbitration years go $3M-$6M-$9M for $18M total. Start at $5M instead, and it’s $5M-$8M-$11M. That’s $24M total. And that’s the super simple version. A larger base salary means larger raises. That extra $2M in 2017 can turn into an extra $7M or $8M (or more) from 2017-19 quick.

This is why the Yankees went to hearing with Wang over a mere $600,000 in 2008. It adds up in future years. Do you know the last time the Yankees went to an arbitration hearing before Wang? It was with Mariano Rivera in 2000. He wanted $9.25M and the team countered with $7.25M. They went to a hearing, the Yankees won, and they saved a boatload of cash. And then they and Mo lived happily ever after. Arbitration hearings can be ugly — the team basically details the player’s shortcomings — but they don’t have to be the beginning of the end of the relationship either.

Also, I have to point out it’s not only the Yankees and Betances who have something on the line here. This deal could change the reliever pay scale dramatically going forward. We’re already seeing some free agent setup men get closer money (Miller, Darren O’Day, etc.). Betances could extend that salary growth to arbitration-eligible players now. We’ve seen teams use their top relievers as setup men to intentionally avoid saves and keep arbitration salaries down. Dellin can break the salary mold.

Arbitration hearings take place in mid-February, so the Yankees and Betances have several weeks to come to an agreement. I have no idea whether they’ll actually get a deal done. Dellin’s camp may think their case is airtight and they can get that $5M after being renewed at the minimum last year. I thought the Yankees would end up going to a hearing with Chapman last year given the $4.1M gap in their filing figures and that didn’t happen, so who knows?

Either way, Betances is going to end up with what sure appears to be a record salary for a first year arbitration-eligible non-closing reliever. His floor right now is $3M. That’s the worst he can do in 2017, and that’s more than any other setup man I can find at the same point of their careers. Dellin and his agent are thinking bigger though. They want closer money. And if they succeed, it will change the reliever pay scale. The MLBPA is rooting hard for Betances right now. There’s a lot of the line.

Aroldis Chapman could be even more effective by being less predictable with his fastball

(Ezra Shaw/Getty)
(Ezra Shaw/Getty)

By any objective measure, Aroldis Chapman is one of the best relievers in baseball and most dominant single-inning forces in baseball history. Chapman has struck out 42.6% of the batters he’s faced in the big leagues, including 44.2% over the last five seasons, the highest rate in history by nearly two percentage points. Craig Kimbrel (40.7%) and Kenley Jansen (39.8%) are the only pitchers within nine percentage points of Chapman.

As good as he is, Chapman is not without his flaws as a pitcher. No player is perfect, after all. Chapman does walk a few too many hitters (career 11.6 BB%), and yeah, he’s made it known he prefers to work the ninth inning and only the ninth inning. Chapman can also be a bit predictable on the mound, especially when he falls behind in the count. (And since he walks so many batters, he’s behind in the count more often than the average pitcher.)

I first noticed this during Chapman’s short stint with the Yankees last year, but he was here and gone so quick — Chapman was on the active roster only 76 days between his suspension and the trade — that I never got around to looking into it. Since he’s back for at least three and possibly as many as five years, it’s time for a deeper dive. Here is Chapman’s pitch selection over the last three years:

Fastball Slider Changeup
Count Even 71.6% 22.2% 5.4%
Pitcher Ahead 68.8% 19.5% 10.5%
Batter Ahead 84.8% 11.9% 2.0%

There are two obvious caveats here. One, every pitcher throws more fastballs when they’re behind in the count. Last season pitchers threw a fastball 64.4% of the time when they were behind in the count. It was 56.2% when the count was even and 48.4% when ahead in the count. And two, not every pitcher has Chapman’s fastball. No other pitcher does. He’s one of a kind. Life is good when you throw 100 mph on the regular.

Chapman, when he falls behind in the count and needs to even things back up, will lean on his high-octane fastball and understandably so. It’s the most dominant fastball in baseball history. There’s no point in keeping it in your back pocket. Aroldis is leaning on that pitch when behind in the count more and more with each passing year too. It was 80.5% fastballs three years ago, 84.6% two years ago, and 89.1% last year.

Again, Chapman’s fastball is historically great, so throwing more of them seems like a good idea. Look at his numbers when he’s been behind in the count the last three years though:

Count Even: .199/.216/.269 (40 OPS+)
Pitcher Ahead: .068/.071/.083 (-40 OPS+)
Batter Ahead: .263/.526/.391/ (93 OPS+)

When Chapman gets ahead in the count, forget it. Game over. Opponents have a .154 OPS (OPS!) against him when he’s gotten ahead in the count since 2014. Crazy. When the count is even, Chapman is still dominant. The hitter might as well be down 0-2.

But, when Chapman falls behind in the count, he’s damn near average. Keep in mind a 93 OPS+ in those situations still isn’t great for the hitter, but relative to Chapman’s standards, it feels like a miracle. Hitting .263 against a guy throwing that hard is impressive, and I can’t help but wonder whether Chapman’s predictability with the fastball plays into that. Sure, he throws extremely hard, but if hitters know it’s coming, their life gets a little easier.

The best way to look at this is by isolating Chapman’s fastball. Here’s how hitters have performed against his fastball in the various count states over the last three years:

AVG ISO Whiff% Foul%
Count Even .210 .060 15.7% 20.5%
Pitcher Ahead .059 .005 25.0% 24.7%
Batter Ahead .389 .185 13.9% 19.4%

I literally lol’d at the .005 ISO against Chapman’s fastball when he’s ahead in the count. Aroldis has allowed one extra-base hit against the heater when he had the count advantage over the last three seasons. One. It was a Garrett Jones double on an 0-2 fastball in August 2014. (I went back through MLB.tv to see if there was any defensive funny business, but no, it was a booming double off the top of the wall on a mistake fastball down the middle. So it goes.)

Anyway, hitters have had more success against Chapman’s fastball when he’s behind in the count. A lot more success. They’ve hit for more average and power, and swung and missed a heck of a lot less. (A 13.9% whiff rate on a fastball is still insanely good, I should note.) I thought maybe this would explain the foul balls too — Aroldis does seem to give up a lot of fouls, doesn’t he? — but apparently not. Either way, Chapman’s fastball is not nearly as effective when he’s behind in the count, yet that’s the pitch he’s throwing nine times out of ten in those spots.

Based on this, it’s fair to wonder whether Chapman would benefit from using his slider and changeup a bit more often when behind in the count. Not necessarily when he’s down 3-0 or anything like that, but in 1-0, 2-0, or 2-1 counts, when a ball doesn’t put a man on base? Why not? The goal is to put something else in the back of the hitter’s mind and change the scouting report. That’s why Chapman’s fastball is so good when he’s ahead in the count. He throws the most sliders and changeups in those spots and the fastball plays up. Right now, hitters can sit fastball when he’s behind.

This is nitpicking to the nth degree, of course. Chapman is historically great even while throwing all those fastballs when behind in the count, so he doesn’t have to change anything to remain effective. This is more a look at a way Chapman can be even better, which is pretty crazy to think about. Mixing in a handful of sliders and changeups when behind in the count, just a few to stop hitters from sitting heater, could make a pretty significant difference.

The Yankees are likely to get fewer borderline pitches with Gary Sanchez behind the plate in 2017

(Joseph Garnett Jr./Getty)
(Joseph Garnett Jr./Getty)

Gary Sanchez is no longer the catcher of the future. He’s the catcher of the present. The Yankees made it official earlier this offseason, when they traded Brian McCann to the Astros for two Single-A pitching prospects and salary relief. They’re handing the catching reins over to Sanchez and he’ll be the centerpiece of the youth movement.

As we saw this past season, the 24-year-old Sanchez can be a true middle of the order impact hitter. Is he going to continue producing like Babe Ruth going forward? Probably not. It’s unrealistic to expect that kind of production all the time. Especially from a catcher. But his bat has always been his calling card and the Yankees are counting on Sanchez to hit and hit big going forward.

Defensively, there have long been questions about Sanchez behind the plate. His arm is, obviously, a cannon. One of the best I’ve ever seen. There are other aspects of catching though, such as blocking balls in the dirt and general receiving, and that stuff generated questions about Sanchez’s defense. He’s improved, but as we saw in 2016, he’s still rough around the edges. That’s okay. He’s still learning.

The Yankees were among the first teams in emphasize pitch-framing — Ben Lindbergh, a former Yankees intern, wrote about the fellow intern who stumbled on the value of framing back in 2009 — which is still a relatively new phenomenon in the sabermetric world. I mean, we all know it’s a valuable skill. We just didn’t know how valuable, and really, we still don’t fully understand it. The numbers are still being refined.

McCann came to the Yankees with a reputation for being a top notch pitch-framer, a reputation he maintained throughout his time in New York. Sanchez? Well, we don’t know too much about his pitch-framing skills yet because he just got to the big leagues. Minor league pitch-framing data exists, but it’s even more dubious than Major League numbers. Here are McCann’s and Sanchez’s 2016 pitch-framing numbers (MLB only for Sanchez):

McCann per StatCorner: +0.51 calls per game
McCann per Baseball Prospectus: +1.84 runs per 1,000 chances

Sanchez per StatCorner: -0.15 calls per game
Sanchez per Baseball Prospectus: +0.73 runs per 1,000 chances

On a rate basis, McCann is a better pitch-framer than Sanchez and not by a small margin either. Both StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus rate McCann as one of the top framers in the game. Sanchez is closer to middle of the pack. Not terrible, not great. Just … average-ish.

Let’s try to visualize the difference between McCann’s pitch-framing and Sanchez’s pitch-framing. With an assist from Baseball Savant, here are all the called strikes with McCann behind the plate this season and all the called strikes with Sanchez behind the plate. Again, this is MLB only for Sanchez. I created a GIF and overlaid the strike zone plots to make the comparison easier:

mccann-sanchez-framing

Do you see the difference? McCann’s strike zone is a little wider on the edges of the plate, though I suspect that might have as much to do with sample size as it does his framing ability. The bottom of the strike zone is what really caught my attention. Based on the data, Sanchez didn’t get nearly as many called strikes at (or below) the knees as McCann.

Framing a borderline pitch requires good technique as much as it does hand and wrist strength. The catcher has to receive the pitch, hold it firm, and subtly pull it into the strike zone as necessary. Too much movement is a bad thing. Here are McCann and Sanchez framing two fastballs in the same spot. McCann, on the left, got the strike. Sanchez didn’t.

mccann-sanchez-framing

Again, those fastballs are in the same spot — the coordinates are damn near identical, per PitchFX — yet McCann got the call and Sanchez did not. Sure, we could blame the umpire for missing the borderline call, but look how the two catchers frame that pitch. McCann receives it nice and quietly. Sanchez stabbed down with a big recoil to get back into the strike zone. He didn’t present it well for the umpire. McCann did.

The numbers and the eye test both indicate McCann is a better pitch-framer than Sanchez. Exactly how much better? That’s up for debate. I don’t think framing metrics are accurate enough to give us exact runs saved values myself, but to each his own. Either way, McCann is a better framer than Sanchez, and that’s going to affect the pitching staff going forward. The Yankees figure to get fewer borderline calls next year, particularly on pitches down in the zone.

Framing seems to be one of those things that can be taught, though maybe only to a point. At the end of the day, it’s an athletic move that requires a certain level of strength and athleticism and reflexes. Some have it, some don’t. If it could be easily taught, everyone would do it. The Yankees clearly value pitch-framing and I’m certain they’ll have Sanchez work on it going forward. Tony Pena and Joe Girardi are two pretty good catching mentors, I’d say.

Pitch-framing is a very real skill that does impact the pitching staff. The Yankees are poised to go young at the back of the rotation, and turning a few extra borderline pitches into strikes could be a big help. McCann’s advantage in framing might not be enough to make up for Sanchez’s advantage in, well, everything else, but when it comes to getting those borderline calls, it appears the Yankees will be worse off next season.

Anticipating the Adjustment

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

The world knows who Gary Sanchez is…and not just the baseball world. After his magnificent arrival in August, even the BBC got in on the action, profiling Sanchez’s sudden dominance at the plate. His profile, already large in Yankee and prospect circles at he beginning of 2016, looms even more so now that he placed second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting behind Detroit’s Michael Fulmer. AL pitchers are sure to have taken notice and will be determined to make 2017 a sophomore slump for Sanchez.

Regardless of how you do in your first real taste of the Majors, making adjustments is a part of making sure you go back for a second (and third, fourth, fifth…) bite; pitchers and coaches will always be looking to exploit weaknesses–real or perceived–and it’s up to young hitters to beat them to the punch in that regard. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what pitchers may do to adjust to Sanchez in his first full season as a big leaguer.

Below is a strike zone plot, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, detailing Sanchez’s ISO against pitches in various parts of the zone.

sancheziso

From that chart, it looks like when pitchers tried to tempt Sanchez with pitches on the outer half, he made them pay. Granted, pretty much every spot looks good; even the blue spots in the zone on the inner half have ISOs of .333; .200; and .429. Perhaps this means pitchers will be more reluctant to go outside against Sanchez, seeing that he has the ability to not only hit those pitches, but do so with authority. If they do go away, though, they need to do so out of the zone.

sanchezwhiffswing

Those are Sanchez’s whiff/swing numbers in various parts of the zone and it’s clear to see where there’s an issue: low and away. That’s where pitchers got Sanchez to swing and miss at high clips in 2016 and you can be sure they’re going to try to do that again; low and away is a winning spot for pitchers, regardless of the batter.

2016 showed us that Sanchez is capable of brilliance in a small stretch. Now, he’ll need to prove his steadiness over the course of an entire season. Given his pedigree–and what he did last season–there’s little reason to doubt him at this point. Baseball does happen, though, and ultimately we won’t know until, well, we know. So long as Sanchez makes his adjustments, he’ll be fine.

The key to a Matt Holliday resurgence: Getting the ball airborne more often

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

A little more than a week ago, the Yankees landed their new veteran designated hitter by signing Matt Holliday to a one-year deal worth $13M. Carlos Beltran was reportedly the team’s first choice, but Beltran went to the Astros, so it was on to Plan B. I thought the Yankees were smart to avoid a big money DH like Edwin Encarnacion or Mark Trumbo, and instead go with Holliday on a one-year deal.

With the Cardinals this past season Holliday hit .246/.322/.461 (109 wRC+) with 20 homers in 426 plate appearances around a broken thumb caused by a hit-by-pitch. It was his worst offensive season since his rookie year back in 2004. The Yankees are hoping Holliday, who turns 37 next month, can bounce back for two reasons. One, he’ll be off his feet as the DH and won’t wear down physically. And two, exit velo. From my thoughts post:

3. One reason to expect Holliday’s numbers to bounce back next season: his .253 BABIP was by far a career low and well below his career .333 BABIP. That happened even though his hard contact rate (38.5%) was comfortably above the MLB average (31.4%) and his career average (35.6%). In fact, among the 375 players to put at least 100 balls in play this past season, Holliday had the third highest average exit velocity (94.7 mph). Only Nelson Cruz (95.9 mph) and Giancarlo Stanton (95.1 mph) were better. Miguel Cabrera (94.5 mph) was fourth. That is some good company. Also, according to Mike Petriello, Holliday put 42.5% of his balls in play at 100 mph or better, the fourth best rate in baseball. Exit velocity isn’t everything — it’s possible to hit a 100 mph pop-up, you know — but it’s not nothing either. Holliday can still strike the ball with authority. That suggests that .253 BABIP, which was so far out of line with the rest of his career, might not last.

Generally speaking, hit the ball hard and good things will happen. Defenders have less time to react and that’s good for the hitter, especially these days with fielders precisely positioned based on the hitter’s tendencies. Holliday did, by just about every publicly available metric, hit the ball hard in 2016. He didn’t get the results he wanted though, and according to Holliday, he hit too many grounders. In nerd terms, his launch angle was bad.

“Quite frankly, I probably hit too many hard-hit ground balls,” said Holliday to George King. “Nowadays with how good the infielders are, it’s not a good idea. I think if I can combine the exit velocity with a little bit more lift and have my misses be more in the air than on the ground, my numbers could really get back toward where they have been my whole career. I think it’s a good sign that the exit velocity was really high. I did have a little bit of bad luck, but that’s no excuse.”

This past season exactly half of Holliday’s balls in play were ground balls. His 50.0% grounder rate was a career high, up from 48.5% in 2015 and eclipsing his previous career high of 49.5% set back during his rookie year. Here is Holliday’s ground ball rate over the last three years:

matt-holliday-ground-balls

The plateaus in 2015 and 2016 are time missed to injury. In each of the last three seasons, Holliday began the year by beating the ball into the ground before starting to get it more airborne during the summer months. His overall ground ball rate is trending upward, but the injuries in 2015 (quad) and 2016 (thumb) robbed him of second half at-bats, when he was doing a better job of getting the ball in the air. That may be skewing his overall rate.

An increase in ground balls is a classic sign a player is losing bat speed. It happens to everyone at some point. As their bat slows, they don’t square the ball up quite as often, and that split-second is often the difference between a line drive and a ground ball. Holliday had some weird things going on statistically. The exit velocity indicates he hit the ball very hard overall. The career high grounder rate suggests something was still off.

Here are two heat maps showing pitch locations against Holliday. The brighter the red, the more pitches in that location. The brighter the blue, the fewer pitches in that location. The 2015 season is on the left. The 2016 season is on the right. You can click the image for a larger view.

matt-holliday-pitch-locations1

Holliday saw a lot more pitches down in the zone this past season than he did a year ago. His 2014 heat map looks like the 2015 heat map as well, meaning more pitches in the middle and not nearly as many down and away. The pitch selection against Holliday didn’t change all that much from 2015 to 2016. Just normal year-to-year fluctuations. When you see that many down and away pitches to a righty, you think slider, and Holliday saw 16.1% sliders in 2015. In 2016, it was 16.8%. His fastball rate went from 61.2% to 62.4%. A negligible difference.

Based on PitchFX, pitchers did not approach Holliday differently in terms of pitch selection. They just started pounding him down and away, and pitches in the bottom third of the zone are the hardest to lift in the air, hence the increase in ground ball rate. I love it when the puzzle pieces come together like that. It’s possible there is some small sample size noise in play here. The numbers are what they are though. Holliday did indeed see more pitches down and away.

Whether he sees that many pitches in that location next season, with the Yankees, is the next question, and it’s impossible to answer. This is a copycat league, and if Holliday has a hole down and away, pitchers are going to attack it. The thing is, Holliday is such a good natural hitter that he could make an adjustment. It’s not guaranteed to happen, but it’s possible. This guy isn’t a brute masher. He knows how to hit. After all, look at his spray chart, via Baseball Savant:

Matt Holliday spray chart

I can’t get enough of it. Power from foul pole to foul pole and base hits to all fields. All spray charts should look like that. You don’t spray the ball all around like Holliday without being a smart and adaptable hitter. After of a year of getting pounded with pitches down and away, Holliday might be better prepared to attack those pitches in 2016. The element of surprise is gone. At least that’s what I hope anyway.

Either way, the point stands. For Holliday to bounce back in pinstripes next season, he’ll have to hit the ball in the air more often than he did in 2016. That fact he was still hitting the ball hard is very good. The Yankees want him to continue doing that while improving his launch angle, so more of those 100+ mph batted balls fall in for hits. Whether he can make that adjustment at 37 years old remains to be seen. The fact Holliday has already acknowledged the ground ball problem is encouraging though, because he can begin to work on it right away.