Subtle change helped Ackley unlock power potential in September

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

When the Yankees acquired Dustin Ackley at the trade deadline, they continued their recent trend of bringing in talented players who had fallen out of favor with their former teams. Ackley was a former tippy top prospect — Baseball America ranked him the No. 12 prospect in baseball in 2011 — who flopped, so the Yankees were able to get him for two players the Mariners have already traded elsewhere.

At worst, Ackley was going to be a more versatile Garrett Jones. Jones was the lefty hitting part-time outfielder/part-time first baseman who never played. Ackley would do the same, except add in the ability to play center field and second base, if necessary. Plus he’s seven years younger and had two additional years of team control remaining. Considering what the Yankees gave up, the move made total sense.

Ackley ended up having a nice impact down the stretch in September, going 13-for-40 (.325) with two doubles, two triples, and four homers in the final three weeks of the season. The Yankees needed all the offense they could get at the time, so Ackley played, mostly at second base but also some first base. Small sample size? Oh yes. Those three weeks could have been a total mirage. At least one person thinks Ackley’s big finish was for real though.

“(Former hitting coach Jeff Pentland) and I saw this pretty much the first BP session,” said hitting coach Alan Cockrell to Chad Jennings earlier this offseason. “He was coming off his back side going out to get the baseball, and it’s tough to hit when you’ve got something coming at you 95 and you’re going towards it. So, Pent and I were in agreement; we were going to get him to stay on his back side a little bit longer. Stay behind the ball a little bit more.”

Cockrell does have some history with Ackley. He was the Mariners hitting coach from December 2008 until May 2010, and Ackley was drafted in 2009, so the two worked together in some post-draft workouts and also during Spring Training in 2010. It’s not much, but there was some familiarity there, and that’s better than going in blind. Ackley was the No. 2 pick in the country, remember. Cockrell saw him at the peak of his prospect status.

“I saw Dustin when he was drafted out of the University of North Carolina … He could impact the baseball, and he was in a good position behind the ball. Had good hands and uses the whole field and the ball comes off his bat with a little different sound for a guy his size,” added Cockrell. “(We needed to) stabilize his movement going forward and keeping him behind the ball a little bit and give him some room to let the hands get the barrel to the ball. And he literally got it in one or two cage sessions. When that started to happen it was a big bat for us down the end.”

I don’t speak hitting coach, though it sounds like Cockrell is saying the Yankees wanted Ackley to stay back a little longer. Let the pitch travel a little deeper before attacking. That sound right? I could be totally wrong here. Anyway, here’s a look at Ackley’s swing with the Mariners from earlier this season and his swing with the Yankees. Brad Boxberger is on the mound in both GIFs, so they’re synced up based on when he starts his delivery.

Dustin Ackley swings then and now

I see … nothing. The two swings look exactly the same to me. It’s always amazed me players and hitting coaches can look at a swing and see something that isn’t right. Same deal with pitching coaches. They can pick up the littlest things in real time. I guess that’s why they make the big bucks.

I looked at the two GIFs frame by frame to see if I could pick anything up, and this is what I found:

Dustin Ackley foot landing

In the frame on the left, Ackley’s front foot is down completely. At the same moment based on Boxberger’s delivery, Ackley’s foot is just beginning to touch down in the frame on the right. That at least suggests Ackley waited just a tiny bit longer before starting his swing in the frame on the right. That’s what Cockrell was talking about. (I think.)

* * *

Update: A commenter noted Ackley’s front foot landed closer to the pitcher while with the Mariners. I’m not sure if he’s taking a smaller stride or simply moved back in the batter’s box. Moving back could also be designed to allow him to wait a little longer before swinging.

* * *

While with the Mariners this year, Ackley had a 16.9% soft contact rate and a 30.5% hard contact rate. The league averages were 18.6% and 28.6% this season, respectively. With the Yankees he had a 13.0% soft contact rate and a 43.5% hard contact rate, so the difference was substantial. Ackley’s time in pinstripes was absolutely a small sample. This also happened though. There’s no taking it back. Ackley hit the ball way harder with the Yankees.

Is the increased hard hit rate the result of staying back on the ball better, and is it something that carry over to next season? That’s what we’re all wondering. I’ve done enough of these mechanical change posts to know most of them amount to nothing. This is more of a timing change than a mechanical change, but whatever. Same difference.

The Starlin Castro pickup means Ackley will open next season as a bench player, which is for the best. Let him show September was real before entrusting him with more playing time. The Yankees took a shot on Ackley’s talent at the trade deadline and he rewarded them in September. Now the Yankees will see if he can be a long-term asset.

Offseason moves will help the Yankees use the entire field going forward

(Andy Lyons/Getty)
(Andy Lyons/Getty)

By now it’s no secret the Yankees are one of the most pull happy teams in baseball, which is why they see so many infield shifts. Their 44.4% pull rate this past season was the highest in baseball by more than a full percentage point (Blue Jays were second at 43.3%). Over the last three years the Yankees have a 41.6% pull rate, fifth highest in baseball. (Interestingly, three of the four teams ahead of them are AL East clubs. The Red Sox are the AL East club not in the top five.)

Part of this is absolutely by design. The short right field porch at Yankee Stadium rewards left-handed batters who pull the ball, so the Yankees have targeted those kinds of hitters in both big (Brian McCann) and small (Kelly Johnson, etc.) moves. There’s now a stigma associated with pulling the ball due to the increased use of shifts, which is unfair. Pulling the ball is the best way to hit for power — the MLB average was a .267 ISO when pulling the ball in 2015. It was .142 when going the other way.

That said, there’s an obvious benefit to having a diverse offense. It can be pretty easy to defend a team of pull hitters, especially when the few hitters capable of spraying the ball all around aren’t at their best. We saw this in the second half this summer. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury are the team’s two best all-fields hitters and when they stopped hitting, the offense was one batted ball to the right side of the field after another. That’s a problem.

“I love home runs as much as the next guy – and, in fact, probably more – but there needs to be a little added dimension to us offensively, and we have those guys in place to do that,” said hitting coach Alan Cockrell to Chad Jennings earlier this offseason. “I’m not going to say playing the game like the Kansas City Royals did, but the little things that add a dimension to a club that pitchers just don’t want to face you.”

There is still half an offseason to go, but right now it appears the Yankees will bring back largely the same offense next year. Teaching guys like McCann and Mark Teixeira to not pull the ball just isn’t going to happen at this point of their careers. Both tried to go the other way more often in recent years — McCann in 2014, Teixeira in 2012 — and it had a negative impact on their production. They are who they are. Let them be.

The Yankees did, however, add two new offensive pieces this offseason, and both stand to help the Yankees diversify their offense. Starlin Castro is the most notable offensive pickup and he’s historically used all fields in his career. In fact, a week ago we looked at an adjustment he made to his stance that better allowed him to use the entire field after he fell into a rut trying to pull everything. Castro’s right-handedness and ability to go the other way are welcome additions to the lineup.

The Yankees also added Aaron Hicks earlier this winter. Hicks only projects to be platoon player at this point, but the guy he replaced, Chris Young, is one of the most extreme pull hitters on record. (Batted ball data goes back to 2002.) Hicks is a switch-hitter and his batted ball profile is pretty interesting. It matches up well with what the Yankees would like to see from their hitters.

Aaron Hicks batted ball

As a left-handed batter (vs. R), Hicks pulls the ball a little more often, so he is in position to take advantage of the short porch. But, as a right-handed batter (vs. L), Hicks is an all-fields guy who actually goes the other way more than he pulls the ball. Hicks figures to platoon in the lefty heavy outfield and will see most of his action against southpaws, so his all-fields approach as a right-handed batter will give the offense a much different look than it had with Young.

Brian Cashman said the Yankees will look to diversify their offense following the season — “The method to signing Jake and Gardy were to be table-setters, to be those guys who can get on base and wreak havoc … It was supposed to start changing the evolution of the picture of this team being only home run oriented,” he said to Jennings — and the additions of Castro and Hicks are a step in that direction. Their batted ball profiles aren’t a coincidence. They were targeted for a reason. (Many reasons, really.)

The Yankees are always going to be a home run hitting team. That’s their identity. They’re the Bronx Bombers because their ballparks have always been conducive to dingers, particularly to right field. The current incarnation of Yankee Stadium is the most extreme example. It would be foolish to shy away from that homer hitting identity given their ballpark. Homers are very good. The Yankees should continue hitting lots of them. Hitting the ball out of the park is what the Yankees do.

At the same time, the Yankees have run the risk of being too one-dimensional in recent years. There’s always been a kernel of truth behind the #toomanyhomers movement that never did get expressed properly. There is no such thing as hitting too many homers, but there is such a thing as not scoring enough runs in other ways. With simple base hits becoming harder to come by these days thanks to the shift, the need to diversify the offense and add players who can hit to all fields became too great for the Yankees to ignore.

“We need to talk about the culture of what we are offensively and how we have players in place to have an even better offense,” added Cockrell. “Those types of things will be things we’ll talk about this winter and things we’ll address in Spring Training.”

Revamped stance may mean Castro’s late-season success is here to stay

This was a dinger. (David Banks/Getty)
This was a dinger. (David Banks/Getty)

Two weeks ago the Yankees made the most significant commitment to their on-the-fly rebuild when they shipped Adam Warren (and Brendan Ryan) to the Cubs for Starlin Castro. They gave up a cheap yet proven above-average commodity in Warren for Castro, who is owed $40M or so over the next four years. The other rebuild trades didn’t involve giving up players as good as Warren or taking on that sort of financial commitment.

The Yankees are banking on Castro’s youth and talent, which became expendable for the Cubs. Castro had some pretty good years earlier in his career but has been replacement level in two of the last three seasons, so this is a clear risk for New York. They’re hoping his excellent finish carries over to next year. “He really looked like a different player over at second,” said Brian Cashman following the trade.

By now you know the story. Castro started 2015 as Chicago’s everyday shortstop before moving to second base in August in deference to the defensively superior Addison Russell. Starlin hit .243/.278/.320 (59 wRC+) as a shortstop and .339/.358/.583 (154 wRC+) as a second baseman. This could easily be a sample size thing — he batted 443 times as a shortstop and only 121 times as a second baseman — but I truly believe a position change can help (or hurt) a player’s offense.

“The first two games I played (at second base) felt a little bit weird, but after playing three or four games there, I felt pretty good,” said Castro to reporters in a conference call after the trade. Position changes aren’t always easy, but if the player is more comfortable and has more confidence at a position, it could carry over at the plate. The opposite is true too — if he’s not comfortable, it could drag him down offensively. Moving to second may have helped Castro’s bat.

While the position change is a nice story, there is perhaps a more practical explanation for Castro’s improved performance down the stretch: he made some mechanical changes at the plate. Starlin sat four days between the move from short to second, and during that time he worked with the hitting coaches — the Cubs have a hitting coach (John Mallee), an assistant hitting coach (Eric Hinske), and something of a hitting liaison (Manny Ramirez) — to close his stance.

“Just moved my front leg,” said Castro to Meredith Marakovits recently (video link). “I think my front leg was just too open and I just tried to pull the ball. That’s why at the beginning of the season, I hit a lot of ground balls to third and to short. It’s not the type of player that I am. I just always hit the ball to the middle and right field. The adjustment that I did, I just closed the stance a little bit more and that helped me a lot to drive the ball to the opposite way.”

Here is Castro at the plate late in the 2014 season, early in the 2015 season, then late in the 2015 season. You can see his stance was very open in 2014 and early in 2015, but, after sitting for a few days and moving to second, he is much more closed at the plate. (Castro is still slightly open but it is not nearly as exaggerated.) You can click the image for the purposes of embiggening.

Starlin Castro stance

“Yeah it’s tough. It’s tough,” said Castro to Marakovits when asked about making the adjustment in the middle of the season. “Especially after six years playing every day, 160 games every year, and then to sit on the bench (for four days) when the team is playing so good. But I don’t want to be selfish. I just put the team first and continued working hard and (tried to take advantage of) the opportunity.”

Anecdotally, it makes sense closing your stance would better allow you to stay on the ball and hit it the other way. Most hitters open their stance in an effort to see the pitch better, but a byproduct can be pulling the ball more often given the direction of the legs and all that. Here is Castro’s batted ball data before and after the adjustment.

BIP GB% FB% LD% Pull% Mid% Opp% Soft% Hard%
Open Stance 342 56.7% 27.5% 15.8% 41.2% 37.1% 21.6% 24.0% 21.6%
Closed Stance 120 46.2% 33.6% 20.2% 39.2% 42.5% 18.3% 21.7% 29.2%
2014 430 45.3% 32.3% 22.3% 40.2% 38.1% 21.6% 16.0% 29.1%

I included Castro’s 2014 batted ball data in there as a reference point for how he hits the ball when he’s going well — Starlin hit .292/.339/.438 (117 wRC+) last year and that’s pretty awesome. That’s the kind of production the Yankees are hoping to see going forward, and the fact his batted ball profile with the closed stance so closely matches his 2014 batted ball profile is pretty rad.

Anyway, the data backs up when Castro told Marakovits, at least somewhat. He did hit the ball on the ground a ton with his wide open stance — that 56.7% ground ball rate would have been the sixth highest among the 141 qualified hitters had he sustained it all season — though he didn’t necessarily pull the ball more often. That 41.2% pull rate is not wildly out of line with last year or what he did with the closed stance. A percentage point or two in either direction is no big deal.

The more important number to me is Castro’s hard contract rate. The league average is a 28.6% hard contact rate, and Castro was far below that early in the season, with his wide open stance. He was (slightly) above league average last year and again this year once he closed his stance. Good things happen when you hit the ball hard, especially in the air. That was the biggest change in 2015. Castro hit the ball weakly and on the ground with his open stance, then hit it hard and in the air with his closed stance.

Now, here’s the thing: I’ve written an awful lot of posts about mechanical changes over the years and more often than not, nothing really comes of it. The only player I can remember who made a noticeable mechanical change and then showed significant, sustained improvement is Curtis Granderson, who went from an okay hitter to a dinger machine seemingly overnight in August 2010. Castro closing his stance can be a whole bunch of nothing.

At the same time, the fact Castro changed his stance and had about a month and half worth of success is encouraging. He’s not an older player trying to stay productive — the vast majority of those mechanical change posts I’ve written were about old dudes trying to hang on — he’s a young guy who lost his way and is trying to get back on track. This isn’t a player trying to compensate for lost bat speed or something like that. Not all adjustments are made for the same reason.

Castro credited Manny Ramirez for helping him this past season — “This is a guy who’s (been through) every moment in the big leagues,” he told Marakovits — and that’s a relationship the Yankees won’t be able to offer, but it’s not like they’re lacking veteran leaders. Starlin’s late-season success is encouraging and the closed stance gives us a tangible reason why it may continue. That doesn’t mean he’s forever fixed, but Castro may have found something that works at this point of his career.

Dingers, Inherited Runners & Challenges [2015 Season Review]

Gardner hit seven three-run homers in 2015. (Presswire)
Gardner hit seven three-run homers in 2015. (Presswire)

Every year when I plan out the Season Review series, I always end up with more topics than posts. I start out rather ambitiously, then I run out of gas a few weeks later. We’re all sick of discussing 2015, right? The offseason is in full swing and we’re all looking ahead to 2016.

Anyway, there are a few weird statistical quirks I want to look at as part of the Season Review. They’re not worth their own individual posts so I’m going to just lump them together. We’ll look at these now, then next week we’ll wrap the whole Season Review thing up with some minor league reviews and that’ll be that. Away we go.

Three-Run Dingers

It was fun to get back to calling the Yankees the Bronx Bombers unironically this season. The Yankees hit only 144 home runs in 2013, 101 fewer than they hit in 2012. That’s the largest year-to-year decline in baseball history. The Yankees improved in 2013 and hit … 147 home runs. The team rebounded to hit 212 homers in 2015, the fourth most in baseball. Only the Blue Jays (232), Astros (230), and Orioles (217) hit more.

While watching the season play out, it felt like the Yankees hit an inordinate number of three-run home runs. Especially Brian McCann. Is it just me, or does it seem like the guy hits nothing but three-run homers? (He hit a team high seven this year.) The Yankees led baseball with 40 three-run dingers in 2015. Forty! Know who was second? The Rockies, Phillies, Astros, and Blue Jays. They each hit 23. The Yankees hit 17 more three-run homers than any other team this summer. They nearly doubled the second place teams.

The last team to hit 40+ three-run home runs was the 1996 Mariners (42). Heck, the last team to hit 30+ three-run homers was the 2007 Indians (30). Hitting three-run home runs is not a skill. Hitting home runs is a skill, but coming to the plate with two guys on base is not. This is just one of those weird things. The Yankees hit a lot of home runs this year in general, and they just so happened to hit a bunch with two men on base.

By the way, the Yankees ranked sixth in solo homers (115), eighth in two-run homers (50), and second in grand slams (seven) in 2015. The Giants hit nine grand slams and eight three-run homers this season. Weird.

Inherited Runners

The Yankees had a really good bullpen this past season, though they only stranded 29% of inherited runners, which is basically league average (30%). Here are the team’s relievers who inherited at least ten base-runners this season, via Baseball Reference:

Name IP G IR IS IS%
Justin Wilson* 61.0 74 44 7 16%
Chasen Shreve* 58.1 59 43 15 35%
Dellin Betances 84.0 74 41 11 27%
Adam Warren 131.1 43 17 4 24%
Chris Martin 20.2 24 15 7 47%
Esmil Rogers 33.0 18 15 7 47%
Nick Rumbelow 15.2 17 13 3 23%
Andrew Miller* 61.2 60 12 2 17%
Branden Pinder 27.2 25 10 5 50%

No real surprise here. Justin Wilson, Chasen Shreve, and Dellin Betances were Joe Girardi‘s firemen this year. Andrew Miller was married to the ninth inning, so those three were the guys Girardi turned to when he need an out(s) with men on base. They all inherited way more runners than the team’s other relievers. Wilson did a fantastic job stranding runners. Betances was slightly better than average and Shreve slightly worse.

What about the other side of the inherited runners coin? Which starters received the most help from the bullpen and which the least? Here’s the bequeathed runner data, again via Baseball Reference:

Name IP G GS BQR BQS BQS%
Nathan Eovaldi 154.1 27 27 31 8 26%
Adam Warren 131.1 43 17 27 5 19%
CC Sabathia* 167.1 29 29 22 7 32%
Michael Pineda 160.2 27 27 18 5 28%
Bryan Mitchell 29.2 20 2 16 6 38%
Chris Capuano* 40.2 22 4 14 5 36%
Ivan Nova 94.0 17 17 9 4 44%
Luis Severino 62.1 11 11 4 0 0%
Masahiro Tanaka 154.0 24 24 4 2 50%
Chase Whitley 19.1 4 4 3 2 66%

Nathan Eovaldi, CC Sabathia, and Michael Pineda all hovered right around the team/MLB average. Believe it or not, Masahiro Tanaka was taken out of a game in the middle of an inning only six times in 24 starts this year, hence the low number of bequeathed runners.

Adam Warren, on the other hand, got a lot of help from the bullpen. They did a real nice job stranding runners for him. If they’d allowed inherited runners to scored at the team average 29% rate, Warren’s ERA would go from 3.29 to 3.84. Ivan Nova, Chris Capuano, and Bryan Mitchell didn’t get much help from the bullpen either, but they didn’t leave a ton of men on base in their limited innings.

Not all inherited runners are the same — inheriting a man on first with two outs is much different than inheriting a runner on third with no outs, for example — and as far as I know, there’s no place that breaks down all the separate inherited runner situations. That would really tell use who did the best job stranding runners. Overall, the Yankees were a league average club when it came to leaving dudes on base this year.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Replay Challenges

Once again, the Yankees had an extremely high success rate with replay challenges in 2015. The Yankees had 24 of 32 calls overturned on replay this year, or 75%. That was easily the best success rate in the game. The Mariners were a distant second at 71.8%. No other team was over 70%. Credit goes to baseball operations assistant Brett Weber, the guy in the clubhouse watching the video and telling the coaching staff whether to challenge.

Those 32 challenges were the ninth fewest in baseball. (The Rays and Tigers had the fewest challenges with 27 each while the Rangers had the most with 54.) That’s a lot of unused challenges. I wouldn’t be opposed to Girardi being a little more liberal with them going forward. Yeah, the success rate might drop, but it might help you win another game or two. Say a bang-bang play in the late innings of a close game. Weber might give you a thumbs down, but if it’s a really close play in an important spot, roll the dice and maybe the MLB folks in midtown see it differently.

Either way, the Yankees have been extremely successful with their challenges in the two years the system has been in place. (Last year they went 23-for-28, or 82.1%.) I’m not sure I’d call this a skill. I’d rather just say Weber is really good at his job, looking over the replays in a timely fashioning and advising the staff whether they should challenge. A few more Hail Mary challenges might not be a bad idea though. It’s okay to shoot from the hip once in a while.

Fun with Statcast: Where does each Yankee hit the ball the hardest?

Carlos Beltran
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

This past season, MLB and MLBAM made Statcast data available to the public for the first time. Things like spin rate and batted ball velocity were suddenly right at our fingertips. The info as presented still lacks context — I have no idea if a 96.8% route efficiency is good or bad or average — but it’s a start. More information is a good thing.

Batted ball velocity is an interesting one because intuitively, the harder you hit the ball, the better. There’s something to be said to having the ability to place the ball in a good location, but hitting the ball hard is a positive. There’s a pretty strong correlation between exit velocity and BABIP. From Rob Arthur:

Exit Velocity BABIP crop

The averaged batted ball velocity in the AL this season was approximately 88.7 mph. The Yankees as a team had an 88.6 mph average exit velocity, but that doesn’t help us much. The individual players are most important, so we’re going to look at them. Specifically, we’re going to look at where each Yankee hit the ball the hardest, which for our purposes means 100+ mph. That sound good?

Before we start, it’s important to note exit velocity by itself is only so useful. Things like launch angle are important — it’s possible to hit a 100+ mph infield pop-up, for example — but there still hasn’t been a ton of research in that department. We’re going to keep it simple and just look at the pitch locations of the 100+ mph batted balls by each Yankee this past season. Got it? Good. So with a big assist from Baseball Savant, let’s dive in. (Click any image in this post for a larger view.)

Carlos Beltran

Carlos Beltran 100mph

Beltran led the Yankees with exactly 100 batted balls with a 100+ mph exit velocity in 2015. Seventy-eight of them came against right-handed pitchers, which makes sense since 71% of his plate appearances came as a left-handed batter. Those numbers are in line with each other.

There isn’t much data against southpaws, so that doesn’t tell us a whole lot, other than Beltran liking the ball over the plate. The pitch locations against right-handed pitchers is far more interesting. Beltran hit away pitches the hardest this past season. Almost all of his 100+ mph batted balls as a lefty batter came on pitches in the middle of the zone or away. There’s very few on the inner half.

Beltran is not an extreme pull hitter from the left side but he definitely doesn’t use the field a whole lot — only 20.3% of his batted balls as a lefty were to the opposite field in 2015. He pulled 45.2% and the other 34.5% went back up the middle. He’s able to do that despite hitting away pitches harder than inside pitches. Interesting! Being able to hammer outside pitches is cool, but would taking slight step back away from the plate better allow him to cover the inner half?

Alex Rodriguez

Alex Rodriguez 100 mph

A-Rod was second on the team in 100+ mph batted balls with 92. It appears he hits the ball the hardest in the lower half of the strike zone, and he also does a better job driving balls on the outer half of the plate, which is also interesting. Pulling inside pitches is anecdotally a good way to create exit velocity.

Chase Headley

Chase Headley 100 mph

Headley was third on the team with 69 batted balls of 100+ mph, so yeah, the gap between Beltran and A-Rod and everyone else was massive. Twenty-five of Headley’s 69 100+ mph batted balls, or 36.2%, came as a right-handed batter, which matches up with his plate appearance split (31% as a righty).

Again, the “vs. LHP” plot doesn’t tell us much because there’s not a ton of data, but wow, look at the “vs. RHP” plot. Headley loves down and away pitches, huh? Or at least that’s where he hit the ball the hardest in 2015. He didn’t drive anything — and by drive I mean hit a ball 100+ mph — up in the zone or in the inner half. So far the data has been the exact opposite of what I expected. I figured we’d see most 100+ mph batted balls on pitches up and/or in.

Mark Teixeira

Mark Teixeira 100 mph

If not for the shin injury, Teixeira would have been among the team leaders in 100+ mph batted balls, if not the leader outright. He had 66 of ’em. Teixeira has that big long swing from both sides of the plate so he loves outside pitches. The vast majority of his 100+ mph batted balls came on pitches on the outer half if not off the plate entirely. Let Teixeira extend his arms and he can do major damage.

Brian McCann

Brian McCann 100 mph

Another outer half guy. The Yankees have all these pull hitters and yet most of them seem to hit outside pitches the hardest, and McCann is no exception. He tied Teixeira with 66 balls in play at 100+ mph. It’s amazing to me McCann and the other guys can reach out and pull a pitch that far away from them with such authority. So if you want to limit hard contact, I guess the best way to pitch these guys is inside? That sounds a little weird given their pull tendencies, but the pitch location plots don’t lie.

Brett Gardner

Brett Gardner 100 mph

Okay, this is more like what I expected. Gardner is an all-fields hitter and the majority of his 53 100+ mph batted balls came on middle-middle pitches. There are a few on the inner half and a few on the outer half, but in general, Gardner hit the ball the hardest when it was right down the middle. That makes perfect sense. Brett’s not a brute masher like most of the other guys ahead of him in this post. He makes the hardest contact on mistake pitches over the plate.

Jacoby Ellsbury

Jacoby Ellsbury 100 mph

Ellsbury had 46 batted balls register 100 mph or better and, like Gardner, most of them came on middle-middle pitches. He did some more damage on down and away pitches and less on inside pitches than Brett, but generally the pitch locations are similar. These two aren’t power hitters. The pitcher has to give them something in the heart of the plate for them to really drive it.

Didi Gregorius

Didi Gregorius 100 mph

Ellsbury had one more 100+ mph batted ball than Gregorius in 77 fewer plate appearances. Didi is another guy who does most of his damage on pitches out over the plate, but he also showed the ability to reach out and drive pitches on the outer half this past season. Well beyond the outer half too. Gregorius had a handful of 100+ mph batted balls on pitches off the plate. Pretty crazy.

The Yankees worked with Didi this summer and in June or so he seemed to make a concerted effort to use the opposite field more often. His plot of 100+ mph batted balls ostensibly reflects that approach.

Dustin Ackley

Dustin Ackley 100 mph

This plot covers Ackley’s entire season, not just his time with the Yankees. He had 47 total 100+ mph batted balls in 2015, including nine with the Yankees. Ackley has tremendous natural hitting ability, and although it hasn’t shown up in the stats yet, he does a good job of covering the entire plate based on the plot. He hit balls 100+ mph that were in, out, down, middle-middle … basically everywhere but up, which doesn’t appear to be uncommon.

I am really curious to see a full season of Ackley next year, and not just because of this plot. Getting away from the Mariners and into hitter friendly Yankee Stadium is one hell of a change of scenery for a talented left-handed hitter.

Greg Bird

Greg Bird 100 mph

Bird wasn’t around very long this past season but his 35 batted balls with a three-figure exit velocity were ninth most on the team, ahead of guys with (many) more plate appearances like Chris Young (30) and Stephen Drew (24).

Based on the pitch location plot, Bird does his most damage on pitches down in the zone, which sorta jibes with opponents trying to beat him upstairs with fastballs all the time. I don’t think Bird has an uppercut swing, or at least not an extreme one like McCann or Teixeira, but the lower half of the strike zone is his wheelhouse. He can go down and golf pitches.

Aaron Hicks

Aaron Hicks 100 mph

Hicks, who so far is the Yankees’ only notable pickup of the offseason, had 35 batted balls of 100+ mph last season. As a right-handed batter, he was all about the low pitch. He could really go down and drive low pitches with authority from the right side of the plate.

As a left-handed batter, Hicks had the hardest contact on pitches middle and away. Not so much inside. That is his weaker side of the plate, historically, but being a left-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium comes with some perks. I’m looking forward to seeing what the Yankees and the hitting coaches do with him next season. There are reasons to believe Hicks is on the verge of really breaking out.

* * *

The Yankees had a bunch of other guys on the roster this past season who are still with the team, but they didn’t hit many 100+ mph batted balls at all. That group includes Rob Refsnyder (seven 100+ batted balls), Slade Heathcott (seven), Brendan Ryan (four), and Mason Williams (three). Click the links in parentheses for each player’s pitch location plot, if you’re interested.

New approach and leg kick are reasons to believe Aaron Hicks is on the verge of a breakout

(Ed Zurga/Getty)
(Ed Zurga/Getty)

Late last week the Yankees made their first significant move of the offseason, trading backup catcher John Ryan Murphy to the Twins for outfielder Aaron Hicks. The team has some depth at catcher — Gary Sanchez‘s breakout summer sure helped matters — and needed an outfielder, particularly someone who can hit lefties and play strong defense.

Hick does both of those things. He has long been considered a standout gloveman in center field — Hicks is the best outfield defender in the organization right now — and this past season he hit .307/.375/.495 (139 wRC+) against southpaws. That’s pretty great. At the very least, Hicks is a fine replacement for Chris Young, who is reportedly seeking a starting job this offseason.

The Yankees don’t view Hicks merely as Young’s replacement, however. They believe he has the potential to be more than that in the future. Brian Cashman called him an “everyday player” at the GM Meetings last week, and while there is no obvious starting spot for Hicks on next year’s team at the moment, there figures to be a way to get him 350+ at-bats. After all, Young batted 356 times in 2015.

The Twins jerked Hicks around the last few years, calling him up and sending him down multiple times. He started this past season in Triple-A, came up for four weeks in May and June, went back to Triple-A for three weeks, then came back up for good in early-July. Part of that was Hicks’ fault — he would have stuck around longer had he performed better — but Minnesota didn’t show much patience.

Hicks hit .259/.333/.432 (109 wRC+) with ten homers and a 16.8% strikeout rate in 291 plate appearances after that final call-up this summer. He was a career .209/.293/.311 (70 wRC+) hitter with a 24.6% strikeout rate in 637 big league plate appearances prior to that. The Yankees are hoping the strong finish is a sign of real improvement and not just a three-month hot streak.

There are reasons to believe Hicks is on the verge of a breakout, if he didn’t already break out with the Twins last year. First and foremost, he became more aggressive at the plate. Usually that’s a bad thing, but Hicks was passive earlier in his career, and that’s bad. Here are his plate discipline stats:

Aaron Hicks plate discpline

(Hicks had over 200 plate appearances each year from 2013-15 and swing rates tend to stabilize very quickly, so while it isn’t a huge sample, the data works.)

Hicks started swinging at more pitches in the strike zone last year (Z-Swing%) without swinging at substantially more pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%). His contact rates have held relatively steady too, which is good. He’s being more selective in the sense that he’s swinging at more strikes without swinging at more balls.

All throughout the minors Hicks drew a ton of walks (career 14.4 BB%) but he was letting too many hittable pitches go by at the MLB level. The MLB average Swing% and Z-Swing% are 46.9% and 64.4%, respectively. Hicks was well below that from 2013-14 and is now closer to average. Working the count and drawing walks is good! But the goal first and foremost is to get a hit, and taking so many pitches in the zone is no way to hit.

“Preparation is key to be successful to the big leagues. If you don’t know who the starting pitcher is, it’s tough to prepare for that. I think that made me a stronger player, a better player,” said Hicks to Ken Davidoff when asked about his strong second half. “I feel confident that I’m hitting big league pitching and I’m developing into a good Major League hitter.”

Hicks is a switch-hitter who stopped hitting left-handed for a while in 2014 because of a lack of success. He made the decision himself before being talked back into it — “Rod Carew called me and told me what the heck am I doing, giving up switch hitting? It’s a blessing and I should go back to work harder at it and be able to learn from my mistakes,” said Hicks to Ronald Blum — though maintaining two swings can be tough. Maintaining one swing is tough.

Last year Hicks made some mechanical changes at the plate, specifically adding a leg kick. This was him at the plate in 2014. He had the same slight step while batting right-handed as well:

Aaron Hicks 2014 swing

The center field camera in Target Field is just the best.

Anyway, Hicks has almost no leg kick there. It was a little step forward and nothing more. Again, he did the same from the right side of the plate. Here’s video if you don’t believe me. I’m not making another GIF.

Now look at Hicks in 2015. He has a much more exaggerated leg kick:

Aaron Hicks 2015 swing

Hicks had the same leg kick while hitting from the right side too. Here’s video. He told friend of RAB Brandon Warne the leg kick came about when he and some teammates were messing around during batting practice, mimicking the swings and leg kicks of other players around the league.

“I started to like it,” he said to Warne. “From then on it was kind of a point where I was just like, you know what, I’m going to try this. We were just having fun in offseason hitting, and it just kind of led to me being comfortable with it and taking solid swings.”

Hicks told Warne he came to Spring Training this past season with the leg kick and kept “tinkering all through the spring” until he got it just right. “Torii (Hunter) helped tinker it for me as far as what I needed to do to be able to get my foot down in time,” he added.

Leg kicks do different things for different hitters, but for the most part it is a timing and/or weight transfer thing. There aren’t a whole lot of hitters these days who hit with a tiny step forward like the one Hicks was using prior to this season. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, just that it’s not for everyone. Hicks found something more comfortable.

“I feel like with the leg kick I’ve been more aggressive. Swinging early in counts and being able to make contact early, and not missing pitches,” said Hicks to Warne. “I think for me it’s more important to have my hands ready all the time to be able to fire them whenever I need to. A leg kick is going to generate my timing mechanism so I need to have my hands ready.”

So hey, how about that, the leg kick and the increased Z-Swing% might be related. At least Hicks believes they are, and that’s all that matters. Neat. It’s also worth noting that even though Hicks was swinging at more strikes this year, he still maintained a healthy 8.7% walk rate. It was 9.6% after being called up the final time.

Once upon a time Hicks was a first round pick (14th overall in 2008) and one of the top prospects in baseball (No. 19 in 2010), so this isn’t some middling talent the Yankees are trying to refine. Hicks has tremendous natural ability. Baseball America (subs. req’d) once said he has the potential to “become a five-tool center fielder with 20-25 home run power who bats in the middle of a lineup.”

It has taken Hicks some time to find his way at the MLB level and that’s not terribly uncommon. He’s still trying to figure out what works best for him, which led to the leg kick and a more aggressive approach — let’s call it “controlled aggression” since he’s not hacking at pitches off the plate — this year. Sometimes it takes time. Baseball is hard.

The Yankees are betting on Hicks — who turned only 26 last month, by the way — and his talent, hoping the improvement he made this summer is real. The change in approach and leg kick give us some tangible reasons to believe Hicks is on the verge of breaking out, at least as a legitimate everyday player, if not more.

“It feels good that the team that just traded for me has confidence in me,” said Hicks to reporters on a conference call after the trade last week. “Whatever they want me to do, just do it, and to know my role and help this team win.”

The Five Shortest Home Runs of the 2015 Season

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

Yesterday morning we looked at the five longest home runs of the 2015 Yankees season. Now it’s time to look at the other end of the spectrum, the laughably short home runs. Yankee Stadium‘s right field porch helps create plenty of these. But hey, both teams are playing in the same ballpark with the same dimensions, so what’s fair is fair.

Once again, we’re going to rely on the wonderful Hit Tracker for our home run distance data because Statcast data isn’t full available just yet. Maybe next year. All home runs count the same, of course. The short ones in this post count just as much as the long distance homers we looked at yesterday. I guess that’s part of what makes baseball fun. Anyway, here are the top five. Or bottom five?

5. September 12th: A-Rod sneaks a home run into the short porch. (box score)
I’ve said this more times than I care to count: Alex Rodriguez is the smartest, most instinctual player I’ve ever seen. Plus he’s insanely talented. When the Yankees moved into the new Yankee Stadium and it became apparent the short porch in right field was a very short porch, Alex made adjustments to better drive the ball the other way, resulting in home runs like this:

Aside from Derek Jeter, who was never much of a power hitter, A-Rod is the only true everyday right-handed hitter the Yankees have had in the lineup for multiple seasons since 2009. I still have a hard time believing someone else could make an adjustment like that look so effortless. No righty is able to poke the ball to the opposite field for a home run quite like Alex. That home run traveled 341 feet, by the way.

4. June 20th: Beltran goes the other way for his second of the game. (box score)
Boy the Yankees crushed the Tigers this summer. They played them seven times, won five times, and outscored Detroit 46-26 (!) in the process. The Yankees won this particular game against the Tigers by the score of 14-3 thanks in part to two Carlos Beltran home runs. The second one was the team’s third shortest dinger of the season.

Believe it or not, that was Beltran’s first and still only two-homer game with the Yankees. He went deep from both sides of the plate too — he hit a a solo home run off the right-hander Alfredo Simon earlier in the game. That was a more traditional big fly. This opposite field solo shot measured in at 339 feet.

3. August 7th: Teixeira homers without leaving the yard. (box score)
This is definitely my favorite home run in this post. It didn’t even leave the ballpark. Teixeira hit a high fly ball out to left field — not the short porch! — that some poor fan in the first row failed to catch, and the ball landed back on the field. Check it out:

The play was originally ruled a double on the field. Joe Girardi asked for a review and the call was later changed to a home run. The fan didn’t get the ball either way. Sucks for him. Bring your glove next time. No shame in it. The distance on this one? A mere 336 feet.

2. May 25th: McCann hits one just over Orlando. (box score)
Orlando in this case means Paulo Orlando, the Royals outfielder. Unlike the other home runs in this post, this one at least looks like it was going to be a base hit not matter what. This was not a towering fly ball that landed one or two rows deep. No, this was a rocket line drive over Orlando’s head:

Maybe Orlando catches that in a normal sized ballpark. He is quite the defender. I’m thinking that’s a double to the wall in most ballparks with an average-ish right fielder. That’s certainly not a routine fly ball. McCann hit it hard and was rewarded with four bases instead of two. This blast traveled 336 feet. Also, Jeremy Guthrie was charged with eleven runs in one inning that afternoon.

1. June 5th: Teixeira hits one high but not far off Weaver. (box score)
Unfortunately, the Yankees didn’t hit any ultra-cheap home runs either off or wrapped out the right field foul pole this season. Here is last year’s shortest homers post. No. 1 was a doozy. That home run was so cheap you can’t help but laugh.

The Yankees didn’t hit any home runs like that this past season. Instead, the shortest home run was a very high fly ball that landed a row or two back in right field. In most ballparks, it’s a lazy fly ball to the warning track with plenty of hang time. In Yankee Stadium, it’s a dinger. Check it out:

That home run checked in at 334 feet. I could only dream of hitting a baseball that far. Oh, and fun fact: three of the team’s nine shortest homers of the season came off Jered Weaver in that June 5th game. In addition to that Teixeira homer, Stephen Drew hit a pair of cheapies that measured 347 feet each. Here’s the video of Drew’s homers. Poor Jered.

* * *

In case you’re wondering, the Yankees’ shortest home run of the season away from Yankee Stadium was a McCann solo home run at the O.Co Coliseum on May 28th. Here’s the video. That was the team’s tenth shortest home run of the season at 348 feet. Sixteen of the Yankees’ 18 shortest home runs this season came in the Bronx, because duh.