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.

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.