Batting average isn’t everything, but the lack of it is really hurting the Yankees

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Last night, in the series opening loss to the Blue Jays, the Yankees were held to two runs or fewer for the 21st time in 50 games this season. No AL team has more games with no more than two runs in 2016. The Yankees were also held to five hits or fewer for the 11th time in 50 games. That’s the third most in the league.

It’s no surprise then that the Yankees came into Tuesday with the second fewest runs scored (192) and the second lowest runs per game average (3.84) in the AL. Only the lowly Twins (187 and 3.74) are worse. The offense has been a big problem overall this season, and, not coincidentally, their team batting average (.233) is the lowest it’s been through 50 games since 1969, as noted by our Katie Sharp. Check out last night’s lineup:

Yankees batting averages

Three players in the starting lineup were hitting over .250 and five of the nine were hitting below .230. That’s almost the regular lineup too. Aaron Hicks was starting in place of Alex Rodriguez, and, sadly, Hicks’ .198 average is an upgrade over A-Rod‘s .170 average. Otherwise that’s the starting lineup. That’s pretty close to what Joe Girardi would send out there in a winner take all wildcard game tomorrow.

Obviously batting average is not the only — or best — way to evaluate offense. Walks and hitting for power matter too. Batting average is not nothing though. We’ve reached the point where batting average has become underrated. The best thing a hitter can do at the plate is not make an out, and hits are always better than walks. Always always always. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Walks should supplement hits, not replace them.

The Yankees as a team really stink at hitting for average. Look at that lineup and tell me how many players have a lower batting average than what you’d reasonably expect coming into the season. Brett Gardner? Sure. He’s not a true talent .217 hitter. He hit .259 last year and .265 in over 3,000 plate appearances since becoming a regular in 2010. Mark Teixeira doesn’t really hit for average anymore but .195 is low even for him.

That’s probably it, right? You could argue Starlin Castro is better than a .250 hitter, though he did hit .265 in over over 1,800 plate appearances from 2013-15, and a 15-point swing in either direction is still within the range of “that’s baseball.” I guess you could argue Chase Headley is better than a .229 hitter too, but eh. That might be pushing it even as good as he’s been in May (.284/.348/.425) and after hitting .259 last year.

Point is, that is close to the normal for the offense in terms of batting average. Gardner and Teixeira (and A-Rod) are underperforming expectations that’s really it. Everyone else is pretty much where you’d expect them to be. Combine the lack of batting average with the lack of power — nine homers combined for Teixeira and Rodriguez through 50 games, woof — and you get, well, one of the worst offenses in the league.

It is harder right now to get a base hit than it has been at any point since the mound was lowered in 1969. I’m talking around the league, not just the Yankees. The MLB batting average is .252 right now. It was .262 when the Yankees won the World Series in 2009. A ten-point drop league-wide in seven years is huge! Go back ten years to 2006 and the league batting average was .269. There’s roughly 165,000 at-bats in MLB each season. The difference between a .269 average and a .252 average is over 2,800 hits. That’s crazy.

All sorts of things are contributing to the decline in offense and batting average. The infield shift is an obvious reason, but it’s not the only reason. More specialized relievers, the expanding strike zone, super detailed scouting reports, the increase in velocity — the MLB average fastball velocity is 92.3 mph this year, up from 90.9 mph in 2008, the first full year of PitchFX — all of that stuff has led to the decline in batting average.

(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
(Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Since the start of last season the Yankees have been, by far, the most shifted team in baseball. They’ve had 1,792 at-bats with the shift on since the start of last year. The Mariners are a distant second at 1,402 such at-bats. The shift has definitely played a role in the team’s inability to hit for average. Teixeira and Brian McCann are the most obvious victims, but shift-able switch-hitters like Headley and Carlos Beltran have been hurt too.

I’ve come to realize shifts are like strikeouts. You can have one guy in your lineup who will strike out 180+ times a year, maybe two if you really want to push it, but any more than that is a major problem. Same with the shift. One or maybe two shift-able hitters is fine. But five or six like the Yankees have at times? Nope. It doesn’t work. It’s too difficult to sustain rallies that way. We’ve seen too many rallies die on grounders hit to shallow right field the last few seasons.

The Yankees are — and have been for a few years now — one of the better contact teams in baseball, believe it or not. Their team 19.4% strikeout rate is sixth lowest in baseball. It was 19.1% from 2014-15, fifth lowest in baseball. There’s good contact and bad contact though, and the fact that they have the eight highest ground ball rate (47.7%) and 11th highest soft contact rate (19.8%) this year is bad news. Their MLB low .265 BABIP isn’t an accident. Weak grounders tend to go for outs, especially when you lack team speed like the Yankees.

There’s also this: the Yankees are old. Old hitters lose bat speed, which is why Beltran and Teixeira and A-Rod are no longer the hitters they once were. Even players in their early 30s like Gardner and Headley and Jacoby Ellsbury begin to slip. The team’s two under-30 regulars are Castro and Didi Gregorius, and let’s face it, they’re flawed hitters. They both tend to swing at everything. Aside from Gardner and Teixeira (and A-Rod) getting out of their slumps, there’s not much reason to expect the Yankees to post a higher batting average going forward.

The Yankees have focused on acquiring left-handed hitters who can take advantage of the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium and that intuitively makes sense. It doesn’t seem to have worked all that well, however. Going forward, in terms of overall team building, the best approach may be to focus on hitters with the skills to hit for average, then let any power boost from the ballpark come naturally.

Forget about hitting .300 for the second. Among players with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, the Yankees haven’t had a .285 hitter since Robinson Cano in 2013. The last regular other than Cano and Derek Jeter to hit .285+ for the Yankees was Nick Swisher in 2010 (.288). Batting average isn’t the only thing that matters. We know that. It also can’t be ignored either. The 2016 Yankees couldn’t make it any more obvious.

Didi’s bat starting to come around at just the right time for the Yankees

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Year one of the Didi Gregorius era did not get off to the best start. Didi struggled big time both in the field and at the plate early last season, so much so there was talk about sending him to Triple-A and playing Stephen Drew at short. The Yankees weren’t talking about that, but many fans were. He was playing that poorly. Thankfully, Gregorius turned things around in May and finished the season strong.

This season has not started well for Didi either. His defense has been more than fine, so it hasn’t been a total repeat of last year, but the bat has started very slow. Only Chase Headley has performed worse among the regulars. Gregorius came into the homestand in a 3-for-30 (.100) slump and hitting .215/.241/.316 (48 wRC+) overall. I was hoping his Opening Day home run would be the jumping off point for a strong second season in New York, but it hasn’t come together yet.

Things have gone a bit better on the homestand for Gregorius and the Yankees in general. The team has won four of five on the homestand, and Didi has gone 5-for-17 (.294) with a pair of bases clearing doubles in the five games. That has raised his season batting line to .229/.250/.344 (58 wRC+), which is still an eyesore. And yes, the caveat here is that those two bases clearing doubles were almost mistakes. This is the pitch he hit for the first:

Didi Gregorius David Price

That’s an 0-2 changeup almost in the dirt, the kind of pitch you typically want a hitter to take. Gregorius took a little defensive half-swing and dunked it into right field. Sometimes you can do everything wrong and it still works out. Baseball. Then, last night he took another little protect swing at an outside pitch and knocked it into shallow center. Didi almost threw his bat at the pitch.

Didi Gregorius Brian Flynn

Gregorius hasn’t been driving the ball all around the yard on the homestand, but that’s okay. Sometimes you just have to put the bat on the ball and hope to finds grass. You hear players and ex-players talk about it all the time: any little thing can help get you bust out of slump, even bloops and bobbles and bunts.

Most importantly, Gregorius is starting to hit the ball harder, and that’s always a plus. A total of 196 players had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title in April, and Didi ranked 196th in hard contact rate (12.5%) and 189th in line drive rate (10.9%). Woof. Alcides Escobar had the second lowest hard contact rate at 14.3%, so the gap between Didi and the next worst hitter was substantial.

So far in May Gregorius has upped his hard contact and line drive rates up to 22.3% and 36.0%, respectively. He hard contact rate still isn’t great, so it’s not like he’s tattooing the ball, but at least he’s moving in the right direction. The next goal is being more disciplined. I know that 0-2 changeup from David Price went for a double, but if Didi keeps swinging at pitches like that, he’s going to get himself out more often than not. Look at his swing rates on the season:

BB% O-Swing% Z-Swing% Zone%
2015 5.7% 33.8% 71.7% 47.0%
2016 2.0% 35.7% 75.6% 44.3%

Gregorius has never shown great discipline as a big leaguer and I’m not sure he ever well, but geez, he’s swinging at everything this year. Swinging at more pitches in the zone (Z-Swing%) is not automatically a bad thing. Swinging at pitches out of the zone (35.7%) is though, especially when pitchers are throwing you fewer pitches in the strike zone. Pitchers know they can get Didi to chase and he has obliged so far this year.

This isn’t a matter of simply taking more pitches. Gregorius has to do a better job staying back and differentiating balls from strikes. Swing at the strikes and take the balls. It’s easy and yet oh so difficult at the same time. Didi has made himself into too easy of an out because of how often he chases out of the zone. Pitchers have been exploiting that weakness big time this year. It’s something he must improve.

It was around this time last year that Gregorius started to turn things around. I don’t think anyone is asking him to be a force at the bottom of the lineup, but he needs to be more than a zero. Didi is hitting the ball harder this month and that’s a positive. It helps that some of those defensive swings are turning into three-run doubles too. He has to continue to work on his plate discipline going forward though. That’s the key. Gregorius has to make pitchers work harder to get him out.

Inability to get the ball airborne causing Teixeira’s power outage

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

For the majority of the season the Yankees have really struggled to score runs, and you can’t single out one guy as the culprit. It takes a total team effort to rank 24th out of the 30 clubs in runs per game (3.57) more than a month into the season. Starlin Castro has been the team’s only consistently productive hitter, I’d say.

A year ago the Yankees had one of highest scoring offenses in baseball overall, and one of the biggest reasons was regular cleanup hitter Mark Teixeira. He hit .255/.357/.548 (143 wRC+) with 31 home runs in 111 games before going down with a small fracture in his shin. Teixeira turned back the clock and was one of the game’s best power hitters.

That has not been the case this season. Far from it. Through 30 team games Teixeira is hitting .202/.325/.298 (82 wRC+) with only four extra base hits. (A double and three homers.) It has been 23 games and 94 plate appearances since his last home run. That is quite bad. Teixeira is not a complementary player. He’s a cornerstone piece of the offense and he isn’t helping much right now.

“It’s only natural that you want to help carry the team, but I’ve always been someone that’s done that,” said Teixeira to Dan Martin yesterday. “As a middle-of-the-order hitter, it’s kind of what you’re there for, to drive in runs. You can carry a team for weeks or months at a time. This is nothing new for me to deal with.”

It’s actually pretty easy to pinpoint why Teixeira has not hit for much power this season: he isn’t hitting the ball in the air. His 50.7% ground ball rate is easily the highest of his career. (Previous high: 42.8% in 2008.) That’s only the super short version though. Teixeira is a switch-hitter and that complicates things. Plus we want to know why he isn’t hitting the ball in the air, right?

Here are Teixeira’s ball in play splits dating back to the start of the 2014 season. I’d normally go back three full years, but wrist surgery limited Teixeira to only 15 games in 2013.

Mark Teixeira batted ballsEverything looks okay from the right side of the plate this season. Teixeira’s batted ball profile is generally in line with last year’s, which is what we want to see. He was pretty awesome last year. It goes without saying this is all coming from a small sample, but so far, so good as a right-handed hitter.

The left side is where Teixeira is having big problems. He’s still pulling the ball a ton, but he’s not making as much hard contact and he’s not hitting the ball in the air. More weak contact on the ground as a left-handed batter means more balls that get eaten up by the shift. It’s actually kinda surprising Teixeira’s batting average isn’t lower, to be honest.

Before we move forward it should be noted Teixeira’s plate discipline has been fine. More than fine, really. He has the 23rd lowest swing rate on pitches out of the zone in baseball (22.7%), and his overall contact rate (80.3%) is right in line with his career norm. Teixeira’s not expanding his zone and hacking at bad pitches. That’s not causing all those extra ground balls as a lefty hitter.

Teixeira said he was working to correct a timing issue near the very end of Spring Training, and it’s possible that timing issue is still, well, an issue. He does the most damage as a left-handed hitter when he can extend his arms and punish a pitch on the outer half. Here’s the pitch location of every ball Teixeira hit 100+ mph last season from the left side of the plate, per Baseball Savant:

Mark Teixeira 100 mph

That is some plate coverage, huh? The guy is a big time power hitter playing his home games in Yankee Stadium, so as pitcher you’d think the best place to go is away, but nope. That is Teixeira’s wheelhouse. It takes a long swing to get to those outside pitches, so if his timing is off even a tiny little bit, it can be the difference between loud contact and something off the end of the bat.

Of course, it’s possible Teixeira’s timing is off because he’s 36 and his bat is slowing. It’s not necessarily a mechanical issue. That said, even old players still hit home runs, and I feel like Teixeira going 94 plate appearances (!) without a dinger is indicative of a mechanical problem more than a “he’s old” problem. What about injury? What if he’s not using his lower half the way he normally does following the shin fracture? Teixeira is not hitting for power because he’s not hitting the ball in the air from the left side of the plate. Why is he not lifting the ball? That’s the mystery.

“There’s no reason I should be struggling like this,” added Teixeira. “It’s been a tough few weeks. I’ve just got to get the ball in the air. I’ve been hitting too many ground balls and soft line drives … My whole career has been about back-spinning the ball, hitting the ball in the air and home runs. I’m just not doing that right now.”

The Yankees obviously still want to climb back into the postseason race this summer, and they’ll need Teixeira to get back to mashing baseballs to do that. And even if they continue to lose, they want him to be productive so they at least have the option of exploring trading him. Who knows whether Teixeira will waive his no-trade clause. But if he doesn’t start hitting, it won’t matter. No one will want him.

The silver lining here is that unlike some of the team’s other veterans, specifically Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran, Teixeira can still contribute with his glove when he’s not hitting. He’s still a great defensive first baseman. That’s not enough though. Teixeira is still getting on base thanks to his walks, so he’s not totally useless at the plate, but the Yankees need him to start hitting the ball out of the park, and he needs to get the ball airborne for that to happen.

The Yankees could use a 2005-esque shake-up, but they don’t have a lot of options

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Eleven years ago the Yankees had a truly miserable start to their season. They opened the 2005 season by losing 19 of their first 30 games and falling nine games back in the AL East. Nine back after 30 games! Needless to say, fans were pretty uneasy because that slow start followed the 2004 ALCS collapse. It was not a good time around these parts. No siree.

The 2005 Yankees rebounded of course, winning 84 of 132 games following the 11-19 start. Two reasons they turned it around were a pair of early-May call-ups: Robinson Cano and Chien-Ming Wang. The Yankees shook things up and were rewarded when Cano and Wang had an immediate impact. Robbie hit .297/.320/.458 (105 wRC+) in 132 games and Wang had a 4.02 ERA (4.20 FIP) in 116.1 innings. They gave the team a real shot in the arm.

Getting Wang into the rotation was pretty easy because Jaret Wright got hurt. (Remember when Wright failed his physical and George Steinbrenner signed him anyway because he thought it would lure Leo Mazzone to New York? Good times.) Getting Cano into the lineup took more creativity. The Yankees moved Tony Womack to left field, Hideki Matsui to center field, and basically benched Bernie Williams, who was nearing the end of the line.

The 2016 Yankees, like the 2005 team, have gotten off to a terrible start. They’re 8-15 overall and have lost 13 of their last 17 games. The AL East is much more competitive these days too. Back in 2005 it was the Yankees, the Red Sox, and a bunch of pushovers. Erasing that nine-game deficit was much easier. The current Yankees are six games back in the division with four good teams ahead of them. It’ll be an uphill climb, that’s for sure.

Given their sluggish start and the fact the Yankees have underachieved on both sides of the ball in the early going — the offense has been far worse than the pitching, but the rotation hasn’t been all that good either — the team could use an early-May shake-up like the one the 2005 team received. The problem? The Yankees don’t have a Cano and/or Wang waiting in Triple-A. There’s not much depth at the positions of obvious need. Here are some shake-up ideas.

Give A Young Outfielder Regular Playing Time

If there’s one thing the Yankees have in Triple-A, it’s outfield depth. Both Ben Gamel (136 wRC+) and Aaron Judge (125 wRC+) are off to nice starts, though Slade Heathcott (41 wRC+) has mostly struggled. The Yankees also have Aaron Hicks at the big league level, though he hasn’t played much for a variety of reasons. (Hicks may not seem young, but he’s only a year older than Heathcott.)

Brett Gardner (110 wRC+) has been one of New York’s most productive hitters in the early going. Jacoby Ellsbury (85 wRC+) and Carlos Beltran (91 wRC+) have not. Beltran has really struggled of late. He has a 16 wRC+ over the last two weeks. Yikes. Sitting Ellsbury and/or Beltran more often in favor of Hicks or Gamel or Judge or whoever is one way to change the lineup and get some young legs on the field.

I think the best way to go about this is to use a regular rotation that also includes Alex Rodriguez and the DH spot. Something like this, perhaps:

LF CF RF DH
Game One Gardner Ellsbury Beltran A-Rod
Game Two Gardner Ellsbury Young OF A-Rod
Game Three Gardner Young OF Beltran A-Rod
Game Four Gardner Ellsbury Young OF Beltran
Game Five Gardner Ellsbury Young OF A-Rod

Ellsbury, A-Rod, and the young outfielder would be playing four out of every five games while Beltran is reduced to playing three times out of every five games, with only two of three starts coming in the outfield. Gardner stays in there full-time because, you know, he’s actually been good this year. The Yankees reduced Bernie’s playing time in 2005 and it’s time to start thinking about doing the same with Beltran.

Calling up Gamel or Judge or Heathcott requires a roster move and cutting someone else loose, and it’s a little too early for that, I think. I’d start by playing Hicks more often. No, he hasn’t hit in the early going (-47 wRC+!), but it’s 28 plate appearances in 23 games. This is a guy who hit .256/.323/.398 (97 wRC+) with eleven homers and 13 steals last year, and we’ve already seen the kind of impact he can have at defense.

Hicks is not going to get his bat going while sitting on the bench. He’s been an everyday player his entire career. This bench thing is new to him. With two of three starting outfielders not really hitting and the team reeling, it’s time to see what Hicks can do with regular at-bats. The Yankees need to figure out what they have in him.

Stick Headley On The Bench

I’ve defended Headley as much as anyone but I can’t do it any longer. He’s been atrocious this year, hitting .156/.267/.156 (24 wRC+) with nary an extra-base hit in 75 plate appearances. As Jared Diamond pointed out yesterday, Headley is only the 13th player in history to start May with a sub-.150 slugging percentage in at least 70 plate appearances. That’s brutal.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

I don’t care how good a player is on defense — Headley has rebounded quite well in the field after last year’s error-fest — there is a minimum acceptable standard on offense and Headley is not meeting it. The Yankees can talk all they want about the quality of his at-bats or how close they think he is to snapping out of it. The bottom line is this is a results oriented business and Headley’s results have been dreadful one month into the season.

The problem at third base is the Yankees don’t have an obvious replacement. Womack stunk back in 2005 and Cano was the obvious candidate to take over. Who can replace Headley at third? Ronald Torreyes? Moving players with bench player skill sets into a full-time role usually turns out poorly. Rob Refsnyder? Pete Kozma? Donovan Solano? Solano is hitting .312/.341/.351 (100 wRC+) in Triple-A, you know.

Since no obvious replacement exists, I’d go with the highest upside candidate: Refsnyder. He’s new to third base — he’s played 153.1 career innings at the hot corner between Spring Training and Triple-A — and his defense is rough, but he might actually hit. Stick him at third, get three at-bats out of him, then pull for defense in the sixth-ish inning. When you hit as poorly as Headley has, you losing playing time. That’s the way it should work.

(Yes, I know Refsnyder hasn’t hit much in Triple-A this year. I’m not too concerned about that though. It’s been cold in Scranton and he’s spent a lot of time learning a new position. As long as he’s healthy, I think he’ll be fine.)

Play Ackley or Swisher?

One the biggest reasons the Yankees scored the second most runs in baseball last year were bounceback seasons from A-Rod and Mark Teixeira. A-Rod was suspended for the entire 2014 season and no one knew what to expect from him in 2015. Teixeira was terrible in the second half of 2014. He hit .179/.271/.302 (63 wRC+) with only five homers after the All-Star break that year.

Dustin Ackley hasn’t played a whole lot this year (18 plate appearances!) because it’s tough to get him into the lineup. He’s stuck in the same role as Garrett Jones last year. Teixeira and A-Rod are not doing much damage right now — Rodriguez has looked much better of late, to be fair — and giving Ackley some of their at-bats could spark the offense. This would complicate the outfield plan outlined above. That’s not worth worrying about right now.

The alternative here would be Nick Swisher, who owns a .340/.370/.540 (167 wRC+) batting line with three homers down in Triple-A. I can’t say I put much stock in a 12-year veteran mashing minor league pitching though. Swisher has two bad knees and he’s hit .204/.291/.326 (75 wRC+) in the big leagues the last two years. Call him up and I suspect you’ll get closer to 2014-15 MLB Swisher than 2016 Triple-A Swisher.

This is where Greg Bird‘s injury really hurts. Calling up Bird to take at-bats away from Teixeira and A-Rod would be far more realistic and, likely, far more successful than the Ackley/Swisher plan. With those two you’re just hoping small sample size success translates to long-term success. Ackley was terrible all those years with the Mariners before raking in pinstripes in September. Swisher was bad from 2014-15 and has had a few good weeks in Triple-A. That’s all it is.

The Yankees have had some success turning veterans who looked washed up into useful players (see Chavez, Eric), so we shouldn’t completely write off Swisher as a possibility. Either way, Ackley or Swisher, taking at-bats away from A-Rod or Teixeira is one potential way to inject some life into the offense. For what it’s worth, I think this is the least likely suggestion in this post.

* * *

I’m not sure what the Yankees could do to shake-up the pitching staff other than maybe swap out some relievers. I guess they could replace Michael Pineda, CC Sabathia, or Luis Severino with Ivan Nova. My guess is Nova’s going to end up making a bunch of starts at some point anyway. Point is, the Yankees have reached the point where some kind of change needs to be made. The problem is they don’t have a lot of internal options. What you see is what you’re going to get with this team.

Are the Yankees being too passive at the plate?

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

It seems one of the biggest universal pet peeves in baseball is swinging at the first pitch when the pitcher is struggling to throw strikes. In the second inning two nights ago the Yankees had runners at first and second with no outs after Martin Perez walked Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, then Brian McCann swung at the first pitch and grounded into a double play. That took the wind out of everyone’s sails.

As fans, seeing McCann swing at the first pitch in that spot was frustrating, but players will tell you the first pitch might be the best one to hit in those situations. The pitcher doesn’t want to fall behind in the count again, so they lay a first pitch fastball in the zone, figuring the hitter might take it. They try to steal a strike when they’re struggling to locate. Unfortunately McCann hit into the double play and that was that.

The Yankees have struggled to score runs this season, and following Wednesday’s game I noted 12 of the 34 men they sent to the plate saw two pitches or less. They were swinging early and often that night. On the season though, only one team has swung less often than the Yankees. The Yankees have a 42.3% swing rate in 2016. The Brewers are at 41.4% and the MLB average is 45.6%. Let’s break it down a little further.

Z-Swing% Z-Contact% O-Swing% O-Contact%
Yankees 58.9% 91.4% 27.2% 62.7%
MLB AVG 63.4% 85.8% 29.3% 61.9%
NYY MLB Rank 30th 1st 6th 14th

Do you see what’s going on there? The Yankees have the highest contact rate in baseball on pitches in the strike zone (Z-Contact%), but they also swing at those pitches (Z-Swing%) less than any other team. They also don’t swing at many pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%). This is good! You want your players to a) make contact when they swing, and b) not chase stuff off the plate.

But dead last in swing rate on pitches in the zone? Those are the pitches you’re supposed to swing at. Last season the Yankees swung at 62.6% of the pitches they saw in the zone with largely the same lineup. The only difference is Starlin Castro instead of Stephen Drew. The Yankees were still a bottom five team in Z-Swing% last year — they were also top three with an 88.8 Z-Contact% — but the gap between 2015 and 2016 is pretty substantial.

The obvious caveat: it’s still early and this stuff can change in a hurry. (For what it’s worth, swing and contact rates do stabilize fairly quickly.) That said, I do wonder if the Yankees are perhaps being a bit too passive as a team, and are letting hittable pitches go by on occasion. Let’s look at some individual players really quick:

2015 Z-Swing% 2016 Z-Swing% Change from 2015-16
Mark Teixeira 65.8% 56.3% -9.5%
Brett Gardner 52.8% 44.0% -8.8%
Chase Headley 61.6% 54.5% -7.1%
Alex Rodriguez 66.6% 62.2% -4.4%
Jacoby Ellsbury 64.5% 60.7% -3.8%
Carlos Beltran 64.3% 61.0% -3.3%
Starlin Castro 64.9% 63.6% -1.3%
Brian McCann 56.5% 55.5% -1.0%
Didi Gregorius 71.7% 71.7% 0.0%

Every single player in the starting lineup except Gregorius is swinging at fewer pitches in the zone this season than they did a year ago. Most of them are swinging at considerably fewer pitches too. We’re talking a difference of three percentage points or more for most guys.

Now, again, the 2016 season is only 20 games old, and weird stuff happens in samples of 20 games. But the entire team has a lower Z-Swing%, so I wonder if that has something to do with the new hitting coaches. The Yankees replaced Kevin Long with the Jeff Pentland/Alan Cockrell tandem last year, then replaced Pentland/Cockrell with Cockrell/Marcus Thames this year. Cockrell was promoted to the main hitting coach to replace Pentland with Thames taking over as his assistant.

Is it possible for a new hitting coach(es) to instill a philosophy like “swing less?” I suppose so, but the Yankees are a pretty veteran team. These guys know what they’re doing at the plate. And even if the new coaches did preach swing less, what’s to be gained? A few more walks? Believe me, I know how important on-base percentage is, but the goal first and foremost is to get a hit, and letting hittable pitches go by is no way to do that.

The Yankees have the highest Z-Contact% and the lowest Z-Swing% in baseball, so it’s easy to say they should simply swing more often and the offense will come. I don’t think it’s quite that simple though. If they start swinging for the sake of swinging, their Z-Contact% rate is going to come down in a hurry. You want to swing at pitches in the strike zone but not necessarily every pitch in the strike zone.

I don’t have an answer to the question in the title. I’m inclined to say this is all small sample size noise and eventually the team’s Z-Swing% will climb upwards. I do think it’s fair to wonder whether the Yankees are taking too many hittable pitches. The players know they’re struggling to score, they feel the pressure, and sometimes you can overthink things and let good pitches go by. They’re not going to walk their way out of this slump though. A few more swings on pitches in the zone can’t hurt.

Yankeemetrics: It’s getting late early [April 25-27]

Nasty Nate (Tim Heitman/USA Today Sports Images)
Nasty Nate (Tim Heitman/USA Today Sports Images)

Near No-No Nate
Nathan Eovaldi‘s chance to make history fell just short on Monday night, but he still established a new level of pitching dominance for Yankee starters this season and helped the team start its road trip with a 3-1 win over the Rangers.

Eovaldi dominated the Rangers lineup, holding them hitless through six innings until Nomar Mazara led off the top of the seventh with a single. He finished with a stellar line of seven-plus innings, no runs, two hits, six strikeouts and one walk, becoming the lone Yankee starter to produce a scoreless outing in 2016. His Game Score of 77 also set a new benchmark for the rotation.

He consistently got ahead in the count, and while pitching with the advantage, was able to get hitters to chase his diving splitter out of the zone. The Rangers went 0-for-12 in at-bats ending in his split-fingered fastball; six of those outs were swinging strikeouts, and five were harmless grounders. His command of his slider was just as impressive: he threw 19 of them, 17 for strikes, and none resulted in a hit.

Although Eovaldi missed out on etching his name in the record books, he did put himself on a couple lists with some pretty good names. The last Yankee to throw at least seven shutout innings while giving up no more than two hits against the Rangers in Texas was Ron Guidry (1980). It was also his eighth straight game with at least six strikeouts, the longest streak by a Yankee right-hander since Roger Clemens in 2001.

From best to worst
One day after Eovaldi spun a gem, Luis Severino produced the exact opposite – a terrible performance in which he was pummeled by the Rangers’ bats and allowed twice as many runs (six) as innings pitched (three). Severino’s Game Score of 20 was the worst for any Yankee starter this season, and it was also the shortest outing for any pinstriped starter.

The Rangers ultimately cruised to a 10-1 victory, handing the Yankees their worst loss in Arlington since a 13-3 beating on August 21, 2001.

The most frustrating part was that numerous times the Yankees seemed thisclose to escaping an inning with no harm done, but were stung by several crushing two-out hits. Nine of the 10 runs allowed by the Yankees came with two outs, continuing a troubling trend for the team.

After Tuesday’s disaster, they had surrendered 49 two-out runs, by far the most of any AL team (the Tigers were second with 39), and the Yankees easily led the league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS allowed with two outs.

Dead Bats Society
Following their 3-2 loss on Wednesday night, there are few words left to describe the magnitude of the Yankees’ near-historic offensive struggles this season, so let’s just recap with some facts (because numbers never lie):

• Yankees have scored 72 runs, their fewest thru 20 games since 1990. And that season ended … um, not good.
• They’ve tallied two runs or fewer in 10 of 20 games, the most for any Yankee team this early into the season since 1966. Yuck.
• Yankees are the only major-league team this season that’s scored two-or-fewer runs in at least half of their games. Disgusting.
• They’ve scored three runs or fewer 15 times this season. Over the last 100 years, no other Yankee club has ever done that more times in the team’s first 20 games. Ugh.
• Since their game in Detroit was postponed on April 10, the Yankees have played 15 games and scored more than four runs just once. Gross.

On a more positive note, A-Rod returned from his oblique injury and produced his best game of the season, going 3-for-3 with a homer, double and single. It was his 543rd career double, tying Tony Gwynn for 32nd place all-time. Next up on the list is The Captain, Derek Jeter, with 544. A-Rod also scored his 1,000th run as a Yankee, the 12th player in franchise history to reach that milestone, and is one of nine players to total at least 1,000 runs and 1,000 RBIs in pinstripes. The other guys? Mattingly, Bernie, Jeter, Yogi, Mantle, DiMaggio, Ruth and Gehrig.

Headley must start hitting the ball in the air more often to get out of his slump

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Last night the Yankees played their 19th game of the season, moving their record to 8-11. They’re now 11.7% of the way through their schedule, so while it’s still early, it’s not that early anymore. Outlier performances are being corrected and stats are starting to look a little more normal. No one is hitting .400+ with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title anymore. That sort of thing.

Through those 19 team games, Chase Headley has been one of the worst hitters in baseball and the worst hitter in the Yankees’ everyday lineup. He is hitting .157/.290/.157 (36 wRC+) in 62 plate appearances, which places him 191st out of the 196 qualified hitters in wRC+. Those 62 plate appearances are the most by any player with zero extra-base hits. (Kolton Wong is the only other player over 50 plate appearances with zero extra-base hits.)

“I haven’t had a problem with his at-bats … He’s taking his walks. He’s been patient. I don’t think he’s really left the zone a whole lot. He’s just not getting a lot of hits, and that will change. If you’re putting up good at-bats, things are going to change. So for him, they’ll start to turnaround,” said Joe Girardi to Brendan Kuty last week, and he’s right in the sense that Headley has been patient. His 16.1% walk rate is 16th highest among those 196 qualified hitters.

The walks are the only thing saving Headley at the plate right now. When he has actually swung the bat, very little has happened. His 25.6% hard contact rate is well below the 30.1% league average, and five of his eight hits have been ground balls through the infield. That’s bad. Headley’s plate discipline has been fine. He’s swinging at the right pitches and all that. But when he makes contact, nothing is happening.

“For me, just trying to find something that allows me to get into the air a little bit,” said Headley to Kuty. “I’ve hit a lot of balls hard this year that, if you hit balls on the ground, there’s a lot more of a chance they’re going to catch them. So for me to be who I think I can be, I need to get the ball in the air. (I’m) just working on some things to try to do that mechanically, put myself in a good position to stay behind the ball a little bit and hopefully that will happen.”

Headley is right in that he needs to get the ball in the air to be productive, that is true of everyone, but his overall 43.6% ground ball rate is right in line with his career average (44.6%). That said, Headley is a switch-hitter and that complicates things. He has two different swings and that means twice as much stuff can go wrong. Here are some real quick ball-in-play splits:

GB% as RHB Hard% as RHB GB% as LHB Hard% as LHB
2013 41.0% 41.0% 48.1% 32.1%
2014 37.1% 41.6% 42.2% 33.0%
2015 47.3% 26.7% 40.7% 28.4%
2016 21.1% 26.3% 65.0% (!) 25.0%

It goes without saying the sample size for 2016 is still very small. Headley has had 32 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers and 30 against lefties, so yeah. In that very limited sample Headley has hit a ton of fly balls against lefties and a ton of ground balls against righties. That’s … interesting. His hard contact rate is similar, but the ball has come off his bat in different directions from each side of the plate.

Headley’s numbers are better as a lefty (84 wRC+) than as a righty (-15 wRC+) so far, but I’m not going to put too much stock into that at this point. More importantly, if Headley keeps hitting 65.0% grounders as a left-handed batter, he’s not going to do much better than an 84 wRC+. He’s got to get the ball in the air at some point, especially in Yankee Stadium. And at the same time, if he keeps lifting the ball as a righty, that -15 wRC+ will come up eventually.

Through 19 games it appears Headley has corrected whatever issues he had defensively last season. His throws has been fine — he made one error but that’s no big deal, most players have made an error at this point — and he’s shown off good range too. Defense was always a huge part of Headley’s value and now he has that back. Even though he’s not hitting, he can contribute in the field and save runs.

Now Headley has to figure out how to get his bat back on track, and he has to do it soon, because the Yankees have zero alternatives at third base. Ronald Torreyes is the type of player who will get exposed quickly with regular playing time, Rob Refsnyder isn’t hitting in Triple-A (46 wRC+), and none of the other minor league infielders (Pete Kozma, Donovan Solano, etc.) are appealing. It’s too early to start thinking trade too.

Like it or not, the Yankees are stuck with Headley for the time being. I’ve been saying I think his offense will be fine, mostly because I can’t imagine his .205 BABIP will last all year, but at some point Headley has to, you know, hit. April is coming to an end soon. It’s time to get it going. Headley has to start getting the ball in the air more often as a left-handed hitter. That’s priority No. 1 right now. Do that and things will start to fall into place.