The Yankees are about to learn a lot about their ability to hit left-handed pitching

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

Late last season, when the Yankees were struggling to get much going offensively, they were shut down by left-handed starters seemingly every other night. As a team they hit .248/.320/.345 with only eight homers in 470 plate appearances against southpaws last September. They dropped nine of 13 games when the opposing starter was a lefty in that final month.

“I think we struggled against left-handers,” said Joe Girardi after the wildcard game loss to Dallas Keuchel and the Astros. “We lost a big bat (in Mark Teixeira), and he was one of the guys we counted on to do a lot of damage to left-handers. And Greg Bird had one of our hits tonight and had a tremendous season for us, but we struggled against left-handers.”

So far this season the Yankees are 0-3 when facing an left-handed starter. They replaced Chris Young with Aaron Hicks and the lefty hitting Stephen Drew with the righty hitting Starlin Castro (you could argue Castro replaced the righty hitting Rob Refsnyder), but so far the team owns a .226/.320/.321 (86 OPS+) batting line against southpaws. The struggles of late 2015 have carried over into early 2016.

Of course, we’re talking about a sample of three games here, so you can’t make too much of this. The Yankees are about to begin a stretch that will tell us much more about their ability to hit southpaws though. Based on the upcoming schedule and pitching probables, the club has just started a stretch in which they will face six left-handed opposing starters in nine games. Here’s the list:

Tuesday, April 19th: LHP Eric Surkamp (loss)
Wednesday, April 20th: RHP Kendall Graveman
Thursday, April 21st: LHP Rich Hill
Friday, April 22nd: RHP Erasmo Ramirez
Saturday, April 23rd: LHP Matt Moore
Sunday, April 24th: LHP Drew Smyly
Monday, April 25th: LHP Cole Hamels
Tuesday, April 26th: RHP A.J. Griffin
Wednesday, April 27th: LHP Martin Perez

Obvious caveat: the upcoming starters may change for a variety of reasons. The further out you go, the more likely it is the opposing starter changes. We’re looking at a nine-day span here — we’re on day two already — so we aren’t looking that far ahead, but yeah, things can change. As always, pitching probables are just that. Probables.

With five lefties coming in the next eight games, Hicks is going to see a lot of playing time and for good reason. He’s a career .258/.347/.425 (139 OPS+) hitter against lefties. Hitting lefties is why the Yankees went out and got him. Well, that’s not true. The Yankees hope he develops into an everyday player at some point. At a bare minimum, they want Hicks to mash southpaws. They’ll be able to get him in the lineup consistently this next week or so, something they’ve been unable to do yet this year.

“We’re going to see a lot of lefties in the next nine or ten days,” said Girardi to Chad Jennings prior to last night’s game. “So Hicksie’s probably going to get a lot of at-bats because he’s been so good against left-handers in his career. It’s a day to keep those guys fresh and to keep him involved. I think he’s important to this team, especially against the left-handers.”

Castro didn’t hit lefties much last year (80 OPS+) — he didn’t hit anyone last year — but he is 3-for-11 (.273) with three doubles against southpaws in the early going. Even if he was 0-for-11, he would still be in the starting lineup every time the Yankees face a lefty this season. He batting second last night, after all. I supposed we could see the right-handed hitting Ronald Torreyes at some point, maybe to give Didi Gregorius a breather, but that’s about as far as lineup changes go.

More than anything, the Yankees need the regulars to step up and produce if they want to right the ship against left-handers. Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, Alex Rodriguez, Teixeira … those guys. They have to carry the offense regardless of whether there’s a righty or lefty on the mound. It hasn’t happened these last six games overall but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen going forward.

These next nine games will be a good litmus test for the offense’s ability to handle left-handed pitchers. They can’t be as vulnerable against southpaws as they were late last year. Not if they want to stay in the race and possibly return to the postseason. Castro and Hicks figure to help to some extent. Bottom line, it’s up to the regulars to lead the way.

Even at age 40, it’s too early to worry about A-Rod’s slow start

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Following last night’s 0-fer, Alex Rodriguez is now 3-for-22 (.136) on the young season. He did hit a home run against the Tigers over the weekend, though he’s also struck out eight times. A-Rod was pretty great last season. But when a 40-year-old with two surgically repaired hips starts slow, there’s going to be concern it’s more than a slump. That’s just the way it is.

The very first thing I look at when an older player slumps is the quality of his at-bats. A few years back, when Derek Jeter was nearing the finish line, he was clearly cheating fastball and jumping on anything near the hitting zone early in the count. Same with Ichiro Suzuki. The quality of their at-bats suffered because their reaction time wasn’t the same, so they had to speed up their bats and sit on the heater. They were at a disadvantage.

Anecdotally, A-Rod’s at-bats have seemed fine so far this season. It’s tough to explain what exactly constitutes a “quality at-bat,” but you know one when you see it. Hitters swing at strikes, spit on pitcher’s pitchers, that sort of thing. Here are some numbers to help put some of this into context:

2015 Walk Rate: 13.5%
2016 Walk Rate: 15.4% (11.1% career, 8.7% MLB average)

2015 Chase Rate: 25.1%
2016 Chase Rate: 27.7% (25.7% career, 29.9% MLB average)

I’ve felt Rodriguez has been doing a good job laying off pitches out of the zone this first week and a half of the season, and it’s good to see the numbers confirm what my eyes are telling me. His plate discipline numbers are right in line with last year and his career averages. He’s not jumping at the plate and chasing out of the zone.

Also, A-Rod is still hitting the ball hard. Wednesday night is a pretty good example of how the batting line can be deceiving right now. Rod went 0-for-4 but hit the ball hard three times: twice to the right fielder and once to the second baseman. Good contact but he hit it to the wrong spot. It happens. That’s baseball.

Baseball Info Solutions has A-Rod’s hard contact rate at 28.6% right now, which almost exactly matches the league average (28.7%). His soft contact rate is 0.0%. Literally zero. BIS says Alex has yet to make weak contact in 2016. Statcast has his average exit velocity at 95.9 mph. Last year it was 92.1 mph. His line drive and fly ball rates are 35.7% and 42.9%, so he’s getting the ball in the air too. I’m going to put this in the very simplest of terms: Alex hit ball good. That’s as basic as you’re going to get. His contact has been loud so far.

Of course it’s still early in the season and all of this can change in an instant. Right now we’re just looking for scary signs. Some sort of evidence Rodriguez’s game is slipping. And, really, you don’t have to look too hard to find it: his contact rate is 68.8% on pitches in the zone and 62.0% overall. Last year it was 77.7% and 70.2%, respectively. The league averages are 85.0% and 76.8%. That’s the red flag to watch.

Alex is a DH and a DH only at this point, so if he doesn’t hit, he’s pretty useless. Unlike last year, when he came out of the gate on fire, he’s started a bit slow this season. If Joe Girardi wants to drop A-Rod in the order — flipping him and Carlos Beltran seems like the obvious move — I say go for it. It’s an easy enough move to make and I can’t imagine anyone would have a problem with that. He dropped him in the order late last year, remember.

Otherwise I think it’s too early to worry about Alex. His contact rate is down, but he’s swinging at the pitches he’s supposed to swing at, and his contact has been solid. I’d be more concerned if A-Rod wasn’t driving the ball and wasn’t showing any kind of feel for the strike zone. Beltran was a disaster last April and the Yankees were rewarded for their patience with him. They’d be smart to remain patient with A-Rod now.

Mark Teixeira working to correct timing issue at the plate before Opening Day

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

This has been a good Spring Training for Mark Teixeira. He missed the end of last season with a small fracture in his shin, and the rehab was pretty lengthy. Teixeira fouled the pitch into his shin in August, the fracture wasn’t found until September, and it wasn’t until January that he was cleared to run. So far this spring the shin has been a total non-issue and that’s pretty damn important.

This has not been a good Spring Training for Teixeira statistically. The shin is healthy, but he’s gone 5-for-39 (.128) at the plate with only two extra-base hits — he hit his first homer last night — and Opening Day is now less than a week away. At some point he would like to get going, even if for no other reason than to build confidence. Spring Training stats are ultimately meaningless, but that doesn’t mean players are happy hitting .128, especially when they’re a pending free agent like Teixeira.

“My timing has been off all spring and we found something (Friday) in the video. The first couple of weeks you are trying to knock off some rust. I keep grounding out and I did it twice today,” said Teixeira to George King over the weekend. Teixeira has 22 ground outs and only eight fly outs this spring, a 2.75 GO/FO ratio. He had a 0.92 GO/FO ratio last year, so he’s way off in limited time this spring. Then again, he had a 2.25 GB/FO last spring and mashed during the regular season, so who knows.

“There is a little thing in my swing that is making my timing off,” added Teixeira while talking to King. “We have another week to fix it and I feel really good we will do that. I am not getting into my legs on my timing mechanism. My whole timing is sinking back and getting under my back leg. Because of that I am jumping at the ball a little bit. I am swinging at good pitches and I should be getting better results.”

Here are the obligatory before and after GIFs. The GIF on the left is from earlier in Spring Training (April 19th, to be exact), and the GIF on the right is from this past Saturday, after Teixeira told reporters about his video work and mechanical flaw discovery.

Mark Teixeira before and after

The GIFs are synced up at the point when Teixeira picks up his foot to begin his little leg kick. You can see that in the GIF on the right, the one from this past Saturday, he begins to lean back a little earlier than he does in the GIF on the left. To use Teixeira’s words, he was “sinking back and getting under my back leg” a split second earlier Saturday.

I am no hitting coach or hitting guru, so what follows is speculation: by “sinking back and getting under my back leg” a bit earlier, Teixeira is putting himself in a better position to hit. He transfers his weight to his back leg, then can explode forward with his swing. When he’s “sinking back and getting under my back leg” a tad late, he has to rush into his swing. Teixeira’s timing is off, basically. That make sense? Am I in the ballpark you think?

Getting at-bats won’t be an issue even though Opening Day is only six days away. The Yankees could always send Teixeira over to minor league camp and let him get, like, ten at-bats a day. I don’t think that will happen though, not unless Teixeira feels he really, really needs the extra work. The team has five exhibition games remaining — well, they have seven games left, but he can’t play in both split squad games today and Thursday — and that might be enough.

Teixeira has started pretty well the last few seasons — remember when he was a slow starter? nowadays we’re happy when he’s healthy in April — even though his Spring Trainings haven’t been great. He didn’t hit his first homer until his very last Grapefruit League game last year, if I’m remembering correctly. Teixeira is obviously extremely important to both the offense and defense, so another hot start is more necessity than luxury. He’s identified some sort of mechanical flaw and is working to fix, and if last night’s homer is any indication, the results are already starting to come.

Building the Most Sensible Lineup for the 2016 Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Last night, the Yankees used something that looked awfully close to their projected Opening Day starting lineup. The only regular not in the lineup was Brian McCann, who is still nursing a sore knee after being hit by a foul tip over the weekend. It’s nothing serious. He’ll be back in a day or two. No reason to push it in mid-March.

As a quick reminder, here is the starting lineup the Yankees ran out there against the Blue Jays last night:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. LF Brett Gardner
  3. RF Carlos Beltran
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. DH Alex Rodriguez
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. 2B Starlin Castro
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. C Gary Sanchez

I’m guessing a healthy McCann slots in at No. 6 behind A-Rod, bumping the other guys down a spot. That’s pretty close to the lineup the Yankees used for most of last season — the most common Yankees’ lineup last year was used only nine times, so yeah — which makes sense because almost none of the personnel has changed. Castro replaced Stephen Drew. That’s the only difference.

Obsessing over the lineup on a day-to-day basis is not really my thing anymore, though I do think it would be instructive to look over the projected batting order and try to figure out who fits best in each spot. The Yankees have a pretty straightforward lineup. We don’t have to rack our brains too much.

The Leadoff Man

This is the easiest, most predictable spot in the lineup. Ellsbury is going to hit leadoff. Against righties, against lefties, whatever. The Yankees are paying Ellsbury an awful lot of money to set the table and he was one of the most productive leadoff men in the game as recently as last May. The only time Ellsbury won’t hit leadoff this coming season is when he gets a day off. Right? Right. Next.

The Two-Hole

An lot of studies over the years have shown the No. 2 spot is the most important spot in the lineup. The No. 2 hitter gets the second most at-bats on the team and is responsible for both driving in runs (when the leadoff man reaches base) and setting the table (for the middle of the order). Ideally your best all-around hitter hits second. Who is the Yankees’ best all-around hitter? Beltran? I dunno.

An argument can be made Gardner is the team’s best hitter, at least when he’s healthy. He did hit .302/.377/.484 (137 wRC+) in the first half last season, after all. Gardner batted second most of last year and he fits that spot well because he can mash the occasional dinger and he’s one of the club’s best on-base guys. Prior to Ellsbury’s injury last year, he and Gardner were dominant from the 1-2 spots. They were on base a combined seven times a game it seemed.

Joe Girardi has discussed using Castro as his No. 2 hitter against lefties, which makes sense from a “he hits right-handed and Girardi likes to sit Gardner against lefties for some reason” point of the view. The problem? Castro hit .281/.304/.339 (76 wRC+) against lefties last year and .265/.309/.366 (86 wRC+) against lefties the last three years. Against lefties Gardner hit .276/.361/.400 (112 wRC+) in 2015 and .262/.337/.395 (104 wRC+) from 2013-15.

There also this: Castro is a big time double play candidate. He’s downright Jeterian with the double plays. Starlin had a 54.1% ground ball rate last year, 12th highest among the 141 qualified hitters, and throughout his career he’s banged into a twin killing in 16% of his opportunities. The league average hovers around 11% each year. Yes, Ellsbury steals bases, but he’s not going to steal every time he reaches base. Castro’s double play ability will short circuit a lot of rallies.

The way I see it, Starlin should show he’s an asset against lefties before giving him a primo lineup spot. Don’t give him the benefit of the doubt just because he’s a righty. When Gardner does inevitably sit against southpaw, Aaron Hicks would be a better No. 2 hitter option than Castro. Hicks hit .307/.375/.495 (139 wRC+) against lefties in 2015 and .272/.360/.447 (125 wRC+) against them the last three years. The Gardner/Hicks platoon is the best No. 2 option.

The 3-4-5(-6) Hitters

We know who is going to hit in the 3-4-5-6 spots: Beltran, Teixeira, A-Rod, and McCann. The only real question is how those four players should be ordered. I have two opinions:

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

1. Teixeira should hit cleanup. He is is not only the Yankees’ best power hitter, he’s also one of their best on-base guys, which serves the team well whenever he leads off the second inning after the top of the lineup goes down in order in the first. Fourth is a good spot for him. You don’t want Teixeira batting any lower because it means fewer at-bats, and you also don’t want to hit him much higher because you want as many men on base as possible when he hits. Plus he’s a switch-hitter. He’s the perfect cleanup hitter.

2. McCann should hit sixth. At this point of his career, McCann is basically a grip it and rip it hitter. That’s not a bad thing, but all the fly balls — his 36.1% ground ball rate was 18th lowest among the 141 qualified hitters in 2015 — are not conducive to a high batting average. McCann has hit .236 with a .309 OBP and a .241 BABIP in over 2,000 plate appearances the last four years. Yes, he has a lot of power, but out of the four guys projected to hit in the middle of the lineup, McCann is the worst at not making outs. He’s great at capping off rallies with a dinger. He’s not so great at extending rallies.

That leaves Beltran and A-Rod for the No. 3 and 5 spots. If Rod hits like he did from April through July, you want him hitting third. If Beltran hits like he did from mid-May through the end of the season, you want him hitting third. Rodriguez did hit more homers than Beltran (33 to 19) and was better overall last season (129 to 119 wRC+), so maybe bat him in the three-hole. I’m not sure there’s a wrong answer here, though I do think Alex gives you a better chance at quick first inning offense with the long ball. So I guess that means my 3-4-5-6 hitters go Rodriguez-Teixeira-Beltran-McCann.

The Bottom Third

I know Castro is the new hotness and everyone is excited about him, but the reality is he barely out-hit Stephen Drew last season (80 to 76 wRC+). That level of production is not so fluky either; Castro had a 74 wRC+ back in 2013. He did sandwich a 117 wRC+ between those two awful seasons in 2014, and surely the Yankees hope that’s the Starlin they’ll get going forward. Until then, I think he has to hit near the bottom of the lineup.

In fact, the best lineup might have Gregorius batting eighth and Castro batting ninth to break up the string of lefties in the wrap-around 9-1-2 portion of the lineup. We saw more than a few teams bring in a lefty reliever and leave him in for a full inning against that part of the lineup last year. Said reliever was staying in even longer when Drew was in the lineup and McCann was hitting fourth. Teams could get two innings out of their left-on-left reliever no problem.

Headley was the best hitter of the three last season and projects to be the best hitter of the three this season (per ZiPS), so seventh is where he belongs. Personally, I’d like to see Didi hitting eighth and Castro hitting ninth for “break up the lefties” purposes, but I have a hard time thinking the Yankees will bat their big offseason pickup ninth. Not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. We’re nitpicking.

So after all of that, I think the most sensible Yankees’ lineup looks something like this:

  1. Ellsbury
  2. Gardner vs. RHP and Hicks vs. LHP
  3. Rod
  4. Teixeira
  5. Beltran
  6. McCann
  7. Headley
  8. Gregorius
  9. Castro

Like I said, Castro’s probably going to hit eighth with Gregorius ninth. That’s the only real difference between my preferred lineup and what is likely to happen. Beltran and A-Rod might flip spots depending who is swinging better at the time. Not batting Starlin second against lefties is the only thing I feel strongly about. That’s a mistake in my opinion. Let him force the issue before bumping him up.

Recent research has shown that, generally speaking, the difference between the most optimal batting order and the worst batting order is a win or two across a full season. Wins are important! But we’re not talking about a difference of ten wins here. The Yankees have a pretty easy to put together lineup, and as long as Girardi doesn’t do something silly like bat A-Rod eighth or Castro leadoff (which he won’t), the Yankees will have a solid offense on the field.

Kuty: Yankees working on adjusting Aaron Hicks’ swing

(Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

According to Brendan Kuty of NJ.com, new assistant hitting coach Marcus Thames has been working with OF Aaron Hicks on “correcting his bat path.”  Hicks has been in the minor league complex for around a month, lifting and working on hitting with Thames.

Hicks, whom the Yankees acquired in the offseason for John Ryan Murphy, was touted as one of the top ML prospects (topping at #19 in 2010 BA list) before being called up to the Minnesota Twins in 2013. Since then, he’s shown flashes of athletic brilliance but has not hit to his potential. The good news is he’s steadily improved hitting in ML: his 97 wRC+ in 390 PA in 2015 is career high (62, 83 wRC+ in previous two seasons) and many believe his tools will take him even further (for instance, check out this Carlos Gomez comparison from FanGraphs). I wouldn’t count on Hicks actually becoming as good as Gomez, but hitting improvements will do wonders for him as a player.

Kuty’s article mentioned that most of the work focused on Hicks’ left-side swing. That’s a plausible idea. His career LHP/RHP splits are quite stark in difference. He’s hit to a nice .808 OPS versus lefties with his righty swing, but only .596 OPS versus righties. Switch hitting is not easy – you have to work on two different swings at once. It is hard to maintain consistency and polish on one swing alone. There have been guys like Shane Victorino, a former switch-hitter who ditched one side and focused on another, but there are undeniable benefits if you can succeed with two swings.

What are they focusing on? Consistent bat path.”Being able to stay long through the zone and line drives, hitting line drives all over the place and constant hand positioning, being able to constantly get that slot long and through the zone,” Hicks said. Those are some phrasings that one may hear at local batting cage but they still ring true in the bigs.

Let’s also talk about Marcus Thames. There’s not a lot of history with his work as a hitting coach but from what I can tell, he seems to be very well-respected and liked. To have a rapid climb from being a High-A hitting coach (2013) to ML assistant coach means that he’s doing something right. In terms of hitting philosophy, it sounds like he’s far from being a cookie-cutter:

“I don’t have one philosophy,” he said. “I don’t want to sit here and make up something because it depends on the hitter. And it depends on the guy on the mound. I really don’t have one and it just depends on the guys. One major thing that I do, I want my guys to be aggressive in the strike zone. Other than that, philosophy-wise, it just depends on the hitter.

There’s definitely not one foolproof way to make every hitters succeed. If there were, imagine the terror pitchers would endure on plate appearance-basis. There were guys like Walt Hriniak, who was a hitting coach for Red Sox and White Sox in the 80’s and 90’s, who saw success (HOF’er Frank Thomas being the main disciple) teaching hitters pretty much the one way, but I personally think every hitter is different. I assume we will hear more about Thames’ reign as a ML assistant hitting coach throughout the season.

Back to Aaron Hicks – he certainly has some pop in his bat. In 2015, Hicks hit for a .142 ISO, which is right around league average. You can expect that figure to go up slightly in the Yankee Stadium. A more exciting number would be 20 HR’s and 20 steals. He hit 11 home runs in 390 PA’s. If he were to get full season’s worth of plate appearances, hypothetically he could get it near 20. I’m not necessarily calling it but it’s plausible and fun to think about. If what he works on with Thames pays off on the field, I think Yankees may have themselves a player that the Twins envisioned years ago. Don’t get too excited yet – if it happens, it’ll be a process.

Yankees may be able to improve their offense by swinging at the first pitch more often in 2016

(Brian Blanco/Getty)
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

Last week was Retro Week here at RAB, and a trademark of that 1996 Yankees team was their relentless offense. That was the trademark of the entire late-90s dynasty, not just the ’96 team. They’d work the count, grind out at-bats, then get into the soft underbelly of the opposing team’s bullpen. It was an incredibly effective strategy. The offense was fun to watch and not fun to face.

Baseball has changed over the last 20 years, and while working counts and grinding out at-bats is never a bat strategy, middle relievers aren’t a bad as they once were. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever before in general, plus teams are matching up more often, so they’re putting their middle relievers in the best position to succeed. Middle relievers now are more effective than they were two decades ago, generally speaking.

But still, we’re conditioned to think working the count is the great way to generate offense even though middle relievers are no longer pushovers. Working the count is good, but there are other ways to generate offense, including swinging early in the count. In fact, the Yankees as a team should maybe consider swinging early in the count — and by early in the count I mean the very first pitch — more often this coming season.

Last year the Yankees swung at the first pitch in 6.14% of their plate appearances compared to the 7.36% league average. Only the Red Sox (5.77%) swung at the first pitch less often. The Yankees as a team hit .303 with a .198 ISO when swinging at the first pitch last year, and .248 with a .169 ISO following the first pitch of the at-bat. The MLB averages were a .340 average and a .213 ISO on the first pitch, and .248 with a .144 ISO thereafter.

That makes sense, right? Hitters swing at the first pitch when they get a really good pitch to hit. Plenty of guys go up to the plate hunting a first pitch fastball or curveball or whatever based on the scouting reports. That’s one of the reasons Brett Gardner‘s power has spiked the last few years. He started ambushing first pitch fastballs. And these days pitchers are throwing more first pitch strikes than ever before. Look:

Zone First Pitch Strike Rates

Do you see what’s going on there? Over the last few seasons — this goes back to 2008, the start of the PitchFX era — pitchers are throwing more first pitch strikes but fewer pitches in the zone overall. It’s a trend too. First pitch strike rate and overall zone rate are headed in opposite directions and have for a few seasons now. Chances are the first pitch of the at-bat will be in the zone. After that? The numbers say it is likely to be out of the zone.

PitchFX data says pitchers throw a first pitch fastball roughly two-thirds of the time, and that’s held pretty constant over the years. I actually though it would be higher than that, but two-thirds of the time it is. I’m sure it’s different for each pitcher. Some guys probably throw a ton of pitch fastballs while others pitch backwards with breaking balls. Masahiro Tanaka seems like a guy who throws a lots of first pitch breaking ball, but I digress.

For the sake of having the information readily available, here is how the returning regular Yankees fared when swinging at the first pitch in 2015, via Baseball Reference:

Player PA H 2B 3B HR BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip OPS+
Carlos Beltran 59 22 7 1 2 .386 .373 .649 1.022 .351 125
Brett Gardner 37 13 2 0 1 .382 .389 .529 .918 .353 108
Alex Rodriguez 62 16 5 0 4 .271 .306 .559 .866 .218 89
Brian McCann 42 11 3 0 2 .282 .310 .513 .822 .237 82
Chase Headley 65 19 5 0 2 .302 .292 .476 .768 .270 70
Didi Gregorius 83 23 5 0 2 .295 .317 .436 .753 .273 70
Jacoby Ellsbury 70 21 2 0 2 .309 .304 .426 .731 .284 65
Mark Teixeira 48 13 6 0 1 .277 .271 .468 .739 .255 63

New addition Starlin Castro put up a .328/.317/.552 (91 OPS+) batting line in 61 plate appearances when he swung at the first pitch last season. Keep in mind we’re talking about a very small sample of plate appearances here. I don’t think these splits have much year-to-year predictive value at all. I don’t think “good first pitch hitter” is a thing that exists.

Anyway, hitters generally do much more damage when they swing at pitches in the zone for pretty obvious reasons. When you swing at something out of the zone, you’re either reaching or getting jammed, and it’s tough to drive a ball with authority that way. Last season batters hit .300 with a .202 ISO on pitches in the zone. It was a .188 average and a .075 ISO on pitches out of the zone. So yeah. Swing at stuff in the zone. And based on PitchFX data, the first pitch of the at-bat is much more likely to be in the zone than any other pitch in the at-bat.

This isn’t to say hitters should always swing at the first pitch. That’s a bad idea. Pitchers aren’t stupid. They’ll pick up on it quickly and adjust. But swinging at the first pitch a little more often isn’t a bad idea. Like I said, only one team swung at the first pitch less often than the Yankees last year, and the Yankees will have almost the same exact lineup in 2016 than they did in 2015. Castro’s the only new regular. They can change the scouting report a bit and start punishing pitchers when they try to steal a strike with a first pitch heater.

Working the count and driving up the pitcher’s pitch count is awesome. The Yankees won a lot of titles doing exactly that. The game is changing though, and getting into the bullpen isn’t as effective as it was 20 years ago, especially in the postseason when teams use only their best relievers. Gardner started hunting first pitch fastballs a few years back and his power output nearly doubled. If the rest of the lineup picks their spots and jumps on the first pitch a little more often, the result could be a nice boost for the offense in 2016.

McCann wants to improve his batting average, but it may not be possible at this point

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Like many of his teammates, Brian McCann had a tremendous first half last season before fading down the stretch. He hit .259/.331/.471 (117 wRC+) in the first half, but only .200/.306/.395 (91 wRC+) in the second half. The end result was a still solid .232/.320/.437 (105 wRC+) batting line.

McCann has been a Yankee for two full seasons now, and during that time he’s hit .232/.303/.421 (99 wRC+) in 1,073 plate appearances. That’s not great overall, but that 99 wRC+ ranks 11th among the 31 catchers with at least 600 plate appearances over the last two years, and his 49 homers are eight more anyone else. (Buster Posey is second with 41.)

The 2014 season seemed to be something of an adjustment period for McCann, who joined a new team in a new city and a new league, and had to learn a new pitching staff. It was a lot to take in. He appeared more comfortable last season, and his offensive production ticked up. Now McCann wants to take it up another notch. Here’s something he told Steven Marcus over the weekend:

But McCann wasn’t satisfied with his .232 batting average. “I don’t like looking up there and seeing I’m hitting around .230,’’ he said Friday from Orlando, Florida, where he was participating in a charity golf tournament. “I’ve got to get better. I’d like to hit .300 with 30 [homers]. I’m searching. That’s my mindset.’’

It’s great McCann isn’t satisfied and wants to perform better next season. That’s the mindset every player should have. McCann’s been a Yankee for two seasons, and during those two seasons he’s been a great hitter for about four months total. The rest were just okay or flat out bad.

Improving the batting average might not be possible at this point of McCann’s career, however. For starters, the vast majority of players see their batting average decline as they get older. That’s natural. Reversing the aging process ain’t easy, especially for a catcher. Secondly, McCann is an extreme fly ball and pull hitter. He has been for a few years now.

AVG BABIP FB% Pull% Hard% Soft%
2012 .230 .234 41.2% 47.5% 32.5% 16.9%
2013 .256 .261 42.3% 48.6% 35.3% 12.7%
2014 .232 .231 45.1% 44.1% 31.0% 15.2%
2015 .232 .235 47.2% 50.1% 31.5% 15.2%
2012-15 .236 .239 44.1% 47.4% 32.4% 15.1%
MLB AVG
.254 .299 45.3% 39.1% 28.6% 18.6%

McCann is a .236 hitter with a .239 BABIP over his last 1,962 plate appearances. His fly ball rate has increased in each of the last three seasons and it’s now higher than the league average. His pull rate has been way higher than the league average for years now. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — McCann still hits the ball very hard, and when you pull the ball hard in the air, extra-base hits tend to happen. McCann’s .187 ISO from 2012-15 is way higher than the .150 league average.

At the same time, hitting the ball in the air so often can be a BABIP killer. Most fly balls are easy outs. Don’t believe me? The league average BABIP on fly balls was .073 in 2015. .073! Pulling the ball as a left-handed hitter means lots of shifts, and we’ve seen plenty of those when McCann is at the plate in recent years. It’s wrong to attribute his batting average decline solely to the shift, but it is absolutely a big factor. So are the fly balls.

Outside of some good ol’ ball in play luck, McCann would have to overhaul his swing and approach to improve his batting average. He’d have to cut down on all the fly balls and start using the left side of the field a little more. That’s not Brian McCann. That’s asking him to be something he is not. We’re talking about a guy on the wrong side of 30 who is already dealing with some age-related decline. Not to mention all the wear-and-tear of catching.

I’m glad McCann is not satisfied hitting in .230s. I also hope he doesn’t try to change his swing and approach. That can lead to even more problems. McCann is what he is at this point of his career, and that’s the best power hitting catcher in baseball. It’s not impossible for him to improve his batting average going forward, just really unlikely, and the Yankees can’t afford to have McCann tinker and be something less than his absolute best.