With McCann and Beltran starting to come around, it’s time for Chase Headley to join the party

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

The Yankees have won 18 of their last 24 games, and during that stretch they’ve done just about everything well. The bullpen has been excellent, the team defense has been very good, the non-Michael Pineda rotation has been good enough, and the offense is much improved from the last two years. The Yankees are the fourth highest scoring team in baseball with an average of 4.85 runs per game. That’s up almost a full run per game from 2013-14 (3.96 R/G).

For most of April the Yankees relied heavily on Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner to generate offense. They still do, but for that first month, those two had to get on base if the club wanted to have any chance to score. Ellsbury and Gardner got on and someone drive them in. If that didn’t happen, the Yankees didn’t score very much. Those two carried the offense.

Lately, the Yankees have been getting some more contributions from the lower part of the lineup. Carlos Beltran, who looked as close to done as it gets for several weeks, is now 12-for-37 (.324) with two homers this month and is showing some real signs of life. Hopefully it’s not just a mirage. Brian McCann has rediscovered his power stroke as well, clubbing three homers in his last 13 games after hitting one in his first 14 games. Getting those two going was really important.

The very bottom of the lineup is a different matter. There’s not much the Yankees can or should do about Didi Gregorius. They have to give him an extended trial at shortstop because he could, maybe, possibly, be a long-term solution at the position. That means living with the growing pains now. Didi’s hitting a powerless .254 with a .333 OBP in his last 18 games, which is fine for a number nine hitter in my book. Jose Pirela figures to steal some at-bats from number eight hitter Stephen Drew, which should help the lineup as well.

That leaves third baseman Chase Headley, typically the seventh place hitter between McCann/Beltran and Drew/Gregorius. Headley is hitting .233/.285/.383 (83 wRC+) in 130 plate appearances this season, with the second highest strikeout rate (22.3%) and the second lowest walk rate (6.2%) among the team’s regulars. He does have a knack for big hits (169 wRC+ in high-leverage spots!), but, overall, the Yankees were counting on more from Headley.

No one came into the season expecting Headley to repeat his stellar 2012 season (145 wRC+), but it was fair to expect a repeat of his 2013-14 campaigns (109 wRC+), especially since he hit .262/.371/.398 (121 wRC+) during his short time in pinstripes last year. Instead, he has the third lowest average exit velocity (84.69 mph) on the team even after last night’s homer. Given that, it doesn’t seem his .273 BABIP with approach his .310 mark from 2013-14 mark anything soon.

The good news is Headley’s plate discipline hasn’t changed despite the drop in walk rate. A change in approach would be a big red flag. He isn’t swinging at any more pitches out of the zone (25.0% after 27.0% from 2013-14) and isn’t making less contact (80.8% after 76.9% from 2013-14). The contact and approach are there. The quality of the contact isn’t for some reason. For what it’s worth, Headley has been a second half hitter since becoming a full-time player in 2009.

First Half Second Half
2009 .232/.308/.366 (88 wRC+) .293/.377/.421 (122 wRC+)
2010 .269/.319/.367 (92 wRC+) .257/.337/.387 (105 wRC+)
2011 .299/.391/.401 (127 wRC+) .247/.306/.390 (98 wRC+)*
2012 .267/.368/.413 (124 wRC+) .308/.386/.592 (170 wRC+)
2013 .229/.330/.359 (100 wRC+) .280/.371/.458 (135 wRC+)
2014 .226/.296/.350 (88 wRC+) .265/.367/.402 (121 wRC+)

* Missed six weeks after breaking a finger sliding into a base.

Does that mean Headley is guaranteed to start hitting later in the season? Of course not. It’s a career long trend though and that’s something we have to acknowledge. Slow starts — slow first halves, really — are nothing new for Headley. Even with last night’s homer, what Headley is doing so far this year is right in line with what he’s done early in every other year as an everyday player.

“It’s fun to just be another guy in the lineup. I feel like guys aren’t game planing against just me. There’s other guys in the lineup they have to worry about,” said Headley to Ryan Hatch recently, referring to no longer having to be The Man offensively, like he did with the Padres all those years. “If you’re going to do that, there are other guys who can get you. There’s consequences with that.”

Headley’s defense has been excellent so far this year, every bit as advertised, but his offense has undoubtedly been a disappointment to date. Hopefully the big game last night is a sign he is breaking out of it. His lack of offense hasn’t really hurt the Yankees yet, and both McCann and Beltran are starting to pick up some of the slack, but the Yankees need Headley to get back to his career norms so the offense can fire on all cylinders.

Yankees’ improved offense starts at the top with Ellsbury and Gardner

And they have a special handshake. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
I bet they have a secret handshake only other fast guys know about. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

When the Yankees missed the postseason in both 2013 and 2014, the offense was the main culprit. Sure, there were other factors like injuries, bad team defense, and just an okay pitching staff, but the Yankees really struggled to score runs and it was the reason they lost more often than not. They hit .244/.307/.378 (88 wRC+) in over 12,000 plate appearances as a team from 2013-14. I mean, come on.

Thankfully the story has been much different so far this year. The Yankees are averaging 4.85 runs per game, up considerably from 3.91 runs per game last year and well-above the 4.19 league average. They’re hitting .244/.321/.418 (104 wRC+) as a team overall, which is oh so much better than what we sat through the last two seasons. Much of the improved offense is thanks to power — the Yankees have a team .174 ISO this after .134 from 2013-14.

The Yankees are also benefiting from the best one-two lineup punch in baseball. Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner are both off to tremendous starts, especially hitting for average, getting on-base, and running the bases. The power isn’t really there, but that’s not their game. Look at these numbers:

Ellsbury .358/.433/.415 143 11/4 12.5% 9.2%
Average Leadoff Hitter .262/.320/.389 99 4.4/1.8 17.7% 7.1%
Gardner .309/.404/.444 141 8/1 12.4% 11.3%
Average No. 2 Hitter .261/.321/.405 105 1.1/0.6 18.3% 7.7%

The only other team in baseball getting something even remotely close to Ellsbury/Gardner production from the one-two spots this year are the Angels thanks to my boy Kole Calhoun (139 wRC+) and the amazing Mike Trout (167 wRC+). Calhoun recently spent a few days hitting lower in the order as Mike Scioscia tried to generate more offense too, so he hasn’t even been a full-time leadoff guy.

Of course, traditional lineup construction plays a big role in only one other team having two hitters his productive atop the lineup. Just about every team has two above-average hitters these days, yet managers continue to adhere to the whole “the best hitter bats third” theory. Teams are slowly starting to come around on batting their best hitters second — Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista have taken turns batting second for the Blue Jays, Joey Votto has batted second for the Reds, etc. — though it’s hardly common practice.

Joe Girardi deserves credit for batting his two best hitters in the top two lineup spots. It certainly helps that they are leadoff types who should hit near the top of the order, but Girardi could easily split them up saying he doesn’t like back-to-back lefties atop the lineup and no one would really question it. It’s sorta silly, yeah. It’s one of those things managers do though. Aside from occasionally sitting Gardner for Chris Young, Girardi has stuck with Ellsbury and Gardner atop the lineup.

“We definitely push each other,” said Brett Gardner to Chad Jennings earlier this week. “It’s a lot of fun hitting next to (Ellsbury) in the lineup. Feels like every time I come up, he’s on base. I feel like he makes me better, and hopefully he feels the same about me. Like I said, we push each other. We take a lot of pride in getting on base, and that’s our job at the top of the lineup. We feel like we’re two leadoff hitters, and we can get on base for those guys in the middle of the lineup and give them RBI opportunities.”

As a result of these two atop the lineup, the Yankees’ number three lineup spot has batted with at least one man on-base in 66 of 124 plate appearances this year, or 53.2%. Last year it was 44.8% and the league average is 45.0%. (The rate for the cleanup spot is nearly identical to last year and the league average, in case you’re wondering.) We’re talking about an improvement of nearly ten percentage points from one year to the next. Ellsbury and Gardner are table-setters and man, they couldn’t possibly be doing a better job right now.

Lineup protection is not a myth. It just exists in a different way than everyone’s been saying for the last century. The best protection is not having a great hitter behind you — that helps! but lots and lots of research has shown it doesn’t help that much — it’s having runners on base when you’re at the plate. MLB hitters have put up a .239/.299/.377 (90 wRC+) batting line with the bases empty this season and .262/.332/.407 (104 wRC+) with men on base this year. It’s not a sample size issue either. The league wide split was 93/101 last year and has been similar for years and years and years.

Batting with Ellsbury and/or Gardner on base is the best protection a Yankee can have this year and it’s not just because of those bases empty/men on base batting splits either. Those two guys are not typical base-runners. They draw attention when they’re on base because they’re threats to steal. Remember when Clay Buchholz threw over to first base even though Ellsbury was literally standing on the bag (twice!) a few weeks ago? That’s what they do to pitchers. They’re unnerving. I’m not sure it’s possible to quantify that but we see it game after game.

Last season the Yankees were hamstrung atop the lineup by Derek Jeter, a legacy Yankee the team was unwilling to drop in the order. Jeter’s an all-time great, we all know that, but the 2014 version of Derek hit .256/.304/.313 (73 wRC+) and snuffed out rallies on a nightly basis. That’s not happening this year. Girardi is able to use his two best hitters atop the lineup and the offense has benefited in a big way. The Ellsbury/Gardner duo is a legitimate game-changer and they’re a huge reason the offense has improved so much 27 games into 2015.

“They get our offense going,” Girardi said to Jennings. “That’s their job, and they’ve been really good at it. You look at the stretch we’ve been in, they’ve played extremely well. They had a tremendous weekend; a big part of our success in Boston, and we need it to continue. You can’t expect Jake to get on six times every night. It would be nice, but both of these guys have an ability to change the game in a lot of ways, and that’s what they’ve been doing.”

Learning curve, hard-hit ball tendencies point to offensive upswing for Didi Gregorius


Over the winter the Yankees were tasked with finding a replacement at shortstop for Derek Jeter. Well, replacement isn’t really the right word. It’s not like they chose to move on from Jeter, he retired. Successor might be a better term here than replacement. Anyway, the search for a new shortstop led them to Didi Gregorius, who came over from the Diamondbacks in a three-team trade in early-December.

The Yankees had been trying to acquire Gregorius since at least the 2013 Winter Meetings, though they needed to wait until after his disappointing 2014 campaign for the price to drop low enough. Simply put, the Yankees bought low on Gregorius, at least relative to what they think he can become. They’re banking on a just turned 25-year-old improving in the coming years and becoming a no doubt starting shortstop down the road.

Gregorius was born in Amsterdam but grew up in Curacao, which has produced a bevy of talented young middle infielders in recent years. A bevy of talented young middle infielders who all initially struggled at the MLB level. Jurickson Profar started slow before his recent shoulder woes, and others like Gregorius, Xander Bogaerts, Andrelton Simmons, and Jonathan Schoop have been below-average hitters early in their careers. They all have that in common.

“(Players from Curacao) are all highly educated, all speak four to seven languages,” said Rangers GM Jon Daniels to Peter Gammons in December. “They almost all come from very strong family backgrounds. So they have little issues adapting to the American society in the minor leagues, and are able to blow through on their natural skills. But in the Majors, when they have to make adjustments for the first time, they haven’t got the baseball backgrounds to make those adjustments. And because we have gotten so intrigued by them, we tend to be disappointed. It’s not fair.”

Current Giants hitting coach and ex-Yankees infield prospect Hensley Meulens, who grew up Curacao, agrees with Daniels. “It doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Meulens to Gammons. “The kids on Aruba and Curacao don’t play a lot of baseball when they are young, and the level is very crude. They play like eleven games in a Little League season. If you’re a kid in the Dominican or Venezuela, you’re playing year round. Don’t lose patience.”

Gregorius doesn’t have the offensive potential of Profar or Bogaerts and he isn’t as gifted in the field as Simmons, but he was considered a potential two-way player coming up through the minors, someone with above-average defense and the ability to be a league average-ish or better hitter. Baseball America (subs. req’d) consistently lauded Didi’s glove during his prospect days and a few years ago noted his “combination of solid bat control, good pitch recognition and plus speed lead some scouts to project him as an above-average hitter.” That sounds promising.

Now, here’s the catch: we don’t know if Gregorius, Profar, Bogaerts, Schoop, and Simmons will be able to make the adjustments Daniels spoke about. Meulens sure didn’t during his days as a player. Others from Curacao like Wladimir Balentien and Roger Bernandina didn’t make the adjustments either. Andruw Jones is the best position player (and best player overall) to come from Curacao by a mile. The second best hitter is probably Randall Simon. It’s not a great collection of names.

That doesn’t mean Gregorius and those other guys won’t the make adjustments though. They haven’t had enough playing time in MLB to show us whether they can. What the Yankees do know about Gregorius is that he consistently hits the ball hard. Subjectively speaking, of course. ESPN stats guru Mark Simon detailed Didi’s tendency to sting the baseball back in December:

Inside Edge, a video-scouting service used by major league teams (including the Yankees) rates every at-bat by a stat known as “hard-hit rate.” The service employs video trackers who chart every batted ball as either hard-hit, medium-hit or soft-hit based on velocity and barrel contact (former Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long used to track this on his own).

Gregorius had a hard-hit rate of 20.4 percent. He was one of 34 players to have at least 250 plate appearances this past season and a 20 percent hard-hit rate.

Gregorius registered 56 hard-hit balls this past season, 30 of which went for base hits, so he hit .536 when hitting the ball hard.

That’s an unusually low number. The average major leaguer hits around .700 on his hard-hit balls. And Gregorius has hit that mark before. In fact, in 2013, he recorded the same number of hard-hit balls. They resulted in 39 base hits.

Inside Edge’s hard-hit ball data is recorded by human stringers, so there will inevitably be some scorer bias, though until HitFX becomes public (which may never happen), this is the best data we have for measuring quality of contact. Three hundred and eleven players had at least 250 plate appearances last season, and Gregorius being one of 34 with a 20%+ hard-hit ball rate means he was in the 90th percentile, give or take. That’s encouraging.

The Yankees have their own internal measure of quality of contact called exit velocity, according to Mark Feinsand. Brian Cashman mentioned the improvement of Chase Headley‘s “hit velo” after the trade last summer and assistant GM Billy Eppler told Feinsand their metric places Aaron Judge in the 90th percentile of MLB hitters when it comes to hitting the ball hard. The Yankees use Inside Edge data and have their own internal exit velocity metric, and I’m certain both were consulted before the Gregorius trade.

Beyond the stats, the Yankees also had a firsthand scouting perspective on Didi from Eric Chavez. Chavez played with Gregorius in Arizona from 2013-14 and now works in New York’s front office as a special assignment scout. “I was really high on him,” said Chavez to Bryan Hoch in December. “His defense is unbelievable, and hitting-wise, he has the potential to be a good hitter — a good .275, .280 hitter, 12 to 15 home runs. His swing plays perfect for Yankee Stadium, he’s kind of got that pull swing. Most of his home runs he hit, where he likes to hit them, I think he’ll be pretty successful there.”

I am generally a scouting report over stats guy when it comes to young players, but in this case I’m more inclined to believe the stats than the scouting report. For starters, I wouldn’t expect Chavez to say anything bad about Gregorius. Even if doesn’t like him all that much, he wouldn’t trash him while talking to the media. Secondly, the Inside Edge data is specifically measuring the quality of Gregorius’ contact, which ostensibly tells us more about his offensive potential going forward than, say, his batting average or wRC+ in 2014. Either way, both the stats and scouting report are positive, but I’m trusting the numbers over Chavez here.

The Yankees didn’t acquire a finished player in Gregorius, which is why he came so relatively cheap. Starting shortstops are really hard to find and the team believes Didi is an MLB caliber defender right now — based on what we’ve seen this spring, uh, yeah, he’s a good fielder — and has the potential to improve at the plate. Players from Curacao are slow-starters in general, and the hard-hit ball data suggests Gregorius got some unfortunate results at the plate in 2014. I am skeptical of Didi’s bat long-term, but there is reason to believe his offense will soon be on the upswing.

Mark Teixeira is not going to focus on beating the shift and that’s okay

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

Position players reported to Spring Training yesterday and one of the first to talk was Mark Teixeira, who is now entering his seventh year as the team’s first baseman. Teixeira went into the winter saying he needed to get stronger following his first full year after wrist surgery, and he claims to have done that with a diet change and more weight lifting. Hopefully it works. We’ll see.

One thing Teixeira said he will not do is focus on trying to beat the shift this coming season. The shift is a hot topic around the game right now and Teixeira has been hurt by it as much as any hitter, particularly when he’s hitting from the left side of the plate. That said, he’s not going to change his approach. He’ll focus on hitting the ball over the shift, not around it.

“We’ve talked about it ad nauseam. Every time I try to slap the ball the other way, it doesn’t go well for anybody,” said Teixeira to Chad Jennings. “That’s what the other team wants. They want to take a middle-of-the-order power hitter and turn him into a slap hitter. So if I can hit more home runs, more doubles, walk more, that takes care of the shift. I don’t want to ground out to second base. That’s not what I’m trying to do up there.”

Teixeira has tried changing his approach to counteract the shift before, most notably early in the 2012 season, and the result was a bunch of weak fly balls to left field. He eventually abandoned the plan during a late-May trip out to the West Coast. Before the trip, Teixeira hit .229/.305/.371 in 118 plate appearances as a left-handed batter. After the trip, he hit .246/.346/.480 in 208 plate appearances as a lefty.

After coming to camp that year telling anyone who would listen he was going to beat the shift, Teixeira gave up trying to the other way before the end of May because it wasn’t working for him. He used to be an all-fields hitter, but he’s not anymore for whatever reason. That’s the reality of the situation. At that point in 2012, Teixeira was at his best when he tried to pull the ball, so that’s what he did. Three years and one wrist surgery later, it’s hard to think he’ll be better able to go to the other way.

It’s easy to forget Teixeira was actually pretty good in the first half of last season. He hit .241/.341/.464 (125 wRC+) before the All-Star break, including .254/.330/.513 as a left-handed batter. After the break though, Teixeira only hit .179/.271/.302 (62 wRC+) overall and a very weak .151/.265/.262 as a lefty batter. First half Teixeira was really good and he sure as heck wasn’t trying to beat the shift. He says he wore down in the second half — hence the focus on getting stronger this winter — and the numbers back it up.

At this point of his career, two months away from his 35th birthday and two years after wrist surgery, Teixeira is what he is. He can still be a productive player even with the shift, he showed that in the first half of last season and also in the second half of 2012, so he should stick to what works. Brian McCann spent all last year trying to beat the shift and, like Teixeira early in 2012, the result was a lot of weak contact. This is Teixeira’s reality now. Trying (again) to change his approach will likely result in decreased performance and that only makes things worse.

Only wrong answer at top of the lineup is one that doesn’t include Ellsbury and Gardner

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

On the very first day of camp last week, Joe Girardi held his annual start of Spring Training press conference and discussed the importance of settling on a lineup, among other things. “Figuring out our batting order I think is something important, because there are some people we don’t know exactly where they are at, and there are obviously some new people in camp,” he said.

The middle of the lineup is where the most questions exist. Figuring out the best way to align the three through seven spots with Carlos Beltran, Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, Chase Headley, and Alex Rodriguez will be Girardi’s toughest challenge, and he needs to see those guys in games before making a decision. The top and bottom of the lineup should be relatively easy. Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner at the top, Didi Gregorius and Stephen Drew at the bottom. Boom, done.

Here’s where it gets interesting: is it better for the Yankees to bat Ellsbury leadoff and Gardner second, or vice versa? They are two extremely similar offensive players. If you don’t believe me, look:

2014 Ellsbury 635 .271/.328/.419 107 16 7.7% 14.6% 39/5 97 130
2014 Gardner 636 .256/.327/.422 110 17 8.8% 21.1% 21/5 116 96
2012-14 Ellsbury
1,594 .282/.336/.412 104 29 7.2% 14.3% 105/12 109 96
2012-14 Gardner
1,283 .266/.338/.418 110 25 8.8% 20.9% 47/15 111 106

Like I said, they’re almost the same damn player. Ellsbury hits more singles, strikes out less, and steals more bases. Gardner draws more walks and hits for more power. Neither has a crippling platoon split either. (Girardi has said he has no problem batting them back-to-back even though they’re both lefties.) The end result is two players with almost identical offensive value overall.

Over the years, all sorts of statistical analyses have shown the best hitter should bat second, but when you have two guys this similar, deciding whether to bat Ellsbury leadoff and Gardner second or vice versa comes down to a matter of preference. We have to start nitpicking. They’ve both gotten on base at the same rate, so the default “he has a higher OBP so he should bat leadoff” tiebreaker doesn’t even apply.

I see it this way: Ellsbury not only steals more bases, he’s also the more aggressive base-stealer. We’ve all seen Gardner sit around and wait until the third or fourth or fifth pitch of the at-bat to take off. It’s annoying. Ellsbury gets on and goes. Ellsbury and Gardner get on base at the same rate, but Ellsbury will get himself to second base quicker, and that’s who I want leading off.

In addition to that, Gardner has a bit more power — he had a higher ISO than Ellsbury last year (.166 vs. .148) and over the last three years (.152 vs. .130) — and batting him second means there should be a few additional runners on base when he bats. That will help turn some of those solo homers — Gardner hit 17 homers last year and 14 were solo shots because he batted leadoff and the eight/nine hitters (Ichiro Suzuki, Brian Roberts, etc.) weren’t getting on — into multi-run blasts.

On the other side of the argument, we could say Ellsbury strikes out less than Gardner, meaning Girardi could be a little more creative with the better bat control guy hitting second. More hit-and-runs, that sort of thing. It’s an old school mentality but the Yankees are going to have to manufacture more runs that way this year. The three-run homers aren’t coming like they used to and Ellsbury’s contact skills (and both his and Gardner’s speed) is a weapon they can use.

Ellsbury was forced to hit third last year due injuries and whatnot, but he is totally miscast in that role. He’s at his best creating havoc in a table-setting role. Same with Gardner to slightly lesser degree. Unless the season gets underway and one guy is drastically outproducing the other, there’s no clear cut answer as to whether Ellsbury or Gardner should bat leadoff. The only wrong answer is the one where someone other than these guys hits first or second.

New additions will help Yankees against pitches down in the zone

Jones is a weapon against low pitches. (Scott Cunningham/Getty)
Jones is a weapon against low pitches. (Scott Cunningham/Getty)

As first explained by Jon Roegele last January and revisited by Jeff Sullivan in September, the strike zone has been expanding in recent years. It is expanding downward, specifically. There are more called strikes at the knees and below nowadays than there were a few years ago for whatever reason. Pitchers have been taught to keep the ball down for decades, and now there is even more of an incentive to do so. It’s hard to do anything with pitches down in the zone.

As a result, some teams have started seeking out low-ball hitters to counter the expanding strike zone. Josh Donaldson, who went from the Athletics to the Blue Jays this offseason, is one of the best low-ball hitters in the game, putting up a .273 AVG and .180 ISO on pitches in the lower third of the zone and below the last two years. The MLB averages were .230 and .103, respectively. The best low-ball hitter in baseball the last three seasons has been (who else?) Mike Trout, with a .343 AVG and .229 ISO.

Last season, the Yankees as a team hit .229 with a .101 ISO on pitches in the lower third of the zone and below, the 17th and 15th best rates in baseball, respectively. The MLB averages in 2014 were a .232 AVG and .103 ISO. Keep in mind those are raw AVG and ISO numbers, unadjusted for ballpark or anything like that. The Yankees were a below-average hitting team on pitches down in the zone despite playing home games in hitter happy Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees have remade their lineup a bit this offseason, at least compared to the Opening Day lineup a year ago. They have a new projected starters at the three non-first base infield positions plus a new primary DH regardless of whether Alex Rodriguez or Garrett Jones gets the majority of the at-bats. Let’s look at how the current roster has performed on pitches down in the zone the last three seasons, with an enormous thanks to the indispensable Baseball Savant.

The Infielders

C Brian McCann .219 .148 .236 18.5%
1B Mark Teixeira .193 .147 .225 23.4%
2B Stephen Drew .179 .072 .276 33.7%
SS Didi Gregorius .245 .115 .286 17.5%
3B Chase Headley .225 .098 .318 28.5%
MLB AVG .230 .107 .300 25.3%

I was curious to see Teixeira’s down in the zone stats before looking them up because, anecdotally, it seems like he’s a high-ball hitter based on what I’ve seen during his first six years in pinstripes. Sure enough, the data backs it up. Teixeira hit .193 with a .147 ISO on pitches down in the zone these last three years while hitting .268 with a .266 ISO on all other pitches. The MLB averages for pitches not down in the zone since 2012 are .273 AVG and .175 ISO, for reference.

Both Teixeira and McCann are power-before-average hitters, which is why they have a better than league average ISO but a below-average batting average on pitches in the bottom third of the zone and below. Headley has been below-average on low pitches but not by much, just a few points in both AVG and ISO. Remember, AVG and ISO are unadjusted and Headley spent most of the last three years in cavernous Petco Park. I expect these numbers to come up going forward. Drew … yikes. Let’s leave it at that.

Gregorius is interesting because he has actually been slightly above-average on hitting pitches low in the strike zone, though only slightly. On the other hand, he has hit .244 with a .134 ISO on pitches not down in the zone, below those .273 AVG and .175 ISO league averages. Seven of his 13 big league homers have come on pitches in the lower third of the zone and below — one of those seven is his first career homer (video), which came at Yankee Stadium off Phil Hughes in April 2013 — so it seems like Gregorius has some golf in his swing. That’s useful.

The Outfielders

LF Brett Gardner .229 .106 .306 25.6%
CF Jacoby Ellsbury .257 .108 .308 18.8%
RF Carlos Beltran .230 .121 .279 22.1%
MLB AVG .230 .107 .300 25.3%

Ellsbury is a high contact hitter who consistently gets the fat part of the bat on the ball, so it’s no surprise he’s fared well on pitches down in the zone. The power production is only league average, but that’s not really his game. Gardner has been so close to being perfectly average on low pitches these last three years that it’s kinda freaky. He’s off the MLB average by one point of AVG, one point of ISO, and three-tenths of a percentage point in strikeout rate.

Beltran has been above-average low-ball hitter by virtue of having an average AVG with better than average ISO and strikeout rates. That said, the Beltran we saw last year was not the same Beltran the Cardinals had from 2012-13. During his two years in St. Louis, Beltran hit .237 with a .133 ISO on low pitches. Last year it was a .211 AVG with a .092 ISO. Hopefully that is just a function of playing through an elbow injury for most of the summer rather than a decline in skills. If that is the case, healthy Beltran is a real weapon against pitches down in the zone.

The Bench

DH Alex Rodriguez .263 .180 .321 24.8%
C John Ryan Murphy .256 .070 .367 28.3%
IF Brendan Ryan .160 .050 .231 30.0%
OF Chris Young .158 .131 .210 31.0%
UTIL Garrett Jones .244 .157 .290 22.2%
MLB AVG .230 .107 .300 25.3%

First things first, let’s just ignore Murphy’s numbers. He has only 112 plate appearances in the big leagues and fewer than 50 of them (46, to be exact) have ended on pitches down in the zone, so it’s a very small sample. Everyone else’s stats are based on a few hundred plate appearances that ended on low pitches.

Anyway, look at A-Rod! He flat out mashed low pitches from 2012-14, which really means he mashed low pitches from 2012-13 because he didn’t play last year. On the other side of the coin, he put up a .267 AVG with a .142 ISO against non-low pitches the last three seasons, both below-average rates. We have no idea what Alex can do next year at age 39 with two surgically repaired hips after missing all of 2014. If he puts up anything close to the 113 wRC+ he had from 2012-13, it would be a major win, low-ball hitter or not.

Jones has been a real threat against pitches down in the strike zone. His AVG, ISO and strikeout rate have been better than average the last three seasons. By comfortable margins too. I guess that’s not surprising — take a few minutes to watch this highlight video and it’s obvious Jones can go down to get a pitch and lift it a long way. Young has some pop on low pitches but is generally well-below-average. Ryan isn’t much of a hitter, low pitches or otherwise.

The additions of Gregorius and Jones figure to help the Yankees against pitches down in the zone in an age when more low strikes are being called and even more pitches are at the knees or below. Headley should also help now that he’s in a much more favorable park, and A-Rod is a wildcard. Maybe he’ll help but probably not. The Yankees weren’t a very good low-ball hitting team in 2014 and their additions this winter appear likely to help improve the situation this coming season.

Drew’s return gives Yankees both a balanced and lefty heavy lineup

(Elsa/Getty Images)
(Elsa/Getty Images)

As discussed earlier, the return of Stephen Drew impacts the Yankees in many ways, particularly with their roster construction. Drew’s return could mean the end of Brendan Ryan, it could mean Rob Refsnyder is going back to Triple-A, or it could mean Didi Gregorius is going to be flipped in a trade. Lots of possibilities.

What we do know is that Drew will play — at least at first, they didn’t sign him not to play — and that means the Yankee will have five left-handed hitters in the regular starting lineup. Three of the remaining four regulars are switch-hitters and one’s a righty. Here’s the quick breakdown:

C – Brian McCann (L)
1B – Mark Teixeira (B)
2B – Drew (L)
SS – Gregorius (L)
3B – Chase Headley (B)
LF – Brett Gardner (L)
CF – Jacoby Ellsbury (L)
RF – Carlos Beltran (B)
DH – Alex Rodriguez! (R)

Dating back to the early-1990s, when then-GM Gene Michael was ahead of the curve in emphasizing patience and wearing down pitchers, the Yankees have prioritized switch-hitters. Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada are the most notable examples, but over the years there was also Ruben Sierra, Tim Raines, Chili Davis, Melky Cabrera, Nick Swisher, and others. The switch-hitters add balance and make it tough for opposing managers to match up.

The Yankees have a weird lineup dynamic right now because it’s both left-handed heavy and balanced at the same. Against a right-handed pitcher, they’ll have eight guys hitting from the left side of the plate. Nine if Garrett Jones plays instead of A-Rod. But, against a lefty starter, they’d still have four guys on the right side of the plate and two lefties (Gardner and Ellsbury) who can hold their own against southpaws. That doesn’t include fourth outfielder Chris Young, who I have to think will play against lefties. What else would he do?

Once upon a time — as in last year before Jon Lester and David Price were traded — having five lefties in your regular lineup in the AL East was less than ideal. That isn’t the case anymore. The best southpaw in the division at this point is probably Drew Smyly, at least until Matt Moore returns at midseason and proves he’s all the way back from Tommy John surgery. Mark Buehrle, Wade Miley, and Wei-Yin Chen are the only other enemy southpaws in the division. And, as Buster Olney (subs. req’d) noted yesterday, those three aren’t tough on lefties:

If you dig inside the numbers more, even the left-handers in the division don’t wipe out left-handed hitters. Mark Buehrle is not a hard thrower, and left-handers typically have done about the same against him as right-handers; last year, lefties had a .718 OPS against him, while right-handers were at .752. Left-handed hitters had a .670 OPS against Wei-Yin Chen, right-handers .746. Wade Miley, acquired this winter by the Red Sox, had .727/.752 OPS splits last season against lefties and righties, respectively.

On paper, the Yankees’ lineup seems to match up well with the right-handed heavy AL East pitching staffs. Plus there are more righty starters than lefty starters in baseball in general — last season, righty starting pitchers faced 43,945 batters while lefties faced 16,069, so it’s roughly a 75/25 split — so the team is in good shape when it plays other opponents too. And of course left-handed hitters have a distinct advantage in Yankee Stadium. The Bombers have plenty of lefties for all those righty starters and enough switch-hitters to maintain balance.

Obviously the offense is a far cry from what it was a few years ago, when Swisher was hitting eighth and Curtis Granderson was clubbing 40+ dingers as the third or fourth best player on the team. I do think the Yankees have upgraded offensively at shortstop and third bases this year, maybe even at second base too, but it’s still a below-average group overall. Being so lefty heavy will help in Yankee Stadium and against all those righty starters, yet the club isn’t ultra-vulnerable against southpaws either.