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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starlin Castro stance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dingers, Inherited Runners & Challenges [2015 Season Review]

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

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

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

Three-Run Dingers

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

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

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

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

Inherited Runners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Replay Challenges

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

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

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

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

Carlos Beltran
(Brian Blanco/Getty)

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

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

Exit Velocity BABIP crop

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

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

Carlos Beltran

Carlos Beltran 100mph

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

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

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

Alex Rodriguez

Alex Rodriguez 100 mph

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

Chase Headley

Chase Headley 100 mph

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

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

Mark Teixeira

Mark Teixeira 100 mph

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

Brian McCann

Brian McCann 100 mph

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

Brett Gardner

Brett Gardner 100 mph

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

Jacoby Ellsbury

Jacoby Ellsbury 100 mph

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

Didi Gregorius

Didi Gregorius 100 mph

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

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

Dustin Ackley

Dustin Ackley 100 mph

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

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

Greg Bird

Greg Bird 100 mph

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

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

Aaron Hicks

Aaron Hicks 100 mph

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron Hicks plate discpline

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aaron Hicks 2014 swing

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

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

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

Aaron Hicks 2015 swing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Five Shortest Home Runs of the 2015 Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Five Longest Home Runs of the 2015 Season

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

The Bronx Bombers returned in 2015. The team’s power production slipped big time from 2013-14, mostly due to personnel (Ichiro Suzuki, Brian Roberts, etc.) and injuries (Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, etc.), but they rebounded in a big way this year. The Yankees hit 212 home runs this season, fourth most in baseball behind the Blue Jays (232), Astros (230), and Orioles (217).

Naturally, some of those 212 home runs were very long. The Yankees hit some bombs this year, and in this post we’re going to look back at the five longest. Because Statcast data is not fully available yet — the MLB.com Statcast leaderboard only runs 50 players deep and is not sortable by team for whatever reason — we’re going to rely on good ol’ Hit Tracker for home run distance data. Maybe next season the Statcast leaderboard will be a bit more user friendly. Anyway, on to the Yankees’ five longest homers of 2015.

5. July 25th: A-Rod‘s third homer ties the game. (box score)
There’s a lot to unpack with the fifth longest home run of the season. First, it tied the game in the top of the ninth. Second, it was Alex Rodriguez‘s third home run of the game. Third — and spoiler alert — it was only A-Rod’s second longest home run of the game. This was one of those “it’s the Twins, of course the Yankees are going to find a way to win” games, and, sure enough, Alex tied things up with this dead center bomb off Glen Perkins.

The Yankees won the game later that inning on John Ryan Murphy‘s three-run dinger. The A-Rod home run measured a healthy 438 feet. It had distance and impact. Alex tied that game with authority. That it was his third home run of the game made it even cooler.

4. October 1st: Refsnyder almost reaches the left field bleachers. (box score)
There’s a whole lotta A-Rod in this post, and Refsnyder is not the player I would have guessed to break up the monopoly. If you’d asked me to predict the longest non-Rodriguez homer of the season, I would gone with Teixeira or Brian McCann. Maybe Carlos Beltran or Greg Bird, but Teixeira or McCann seem like better guesses. But nope, it’s Rob Refsnyder, with this 439 foot blast against the Red Sox:

Refsnyder’s home run gave the Yankees an insurance run in the eventual win, a win that clinched the team’s first postseason berth since 2012. I didn’t think Refsnyder had that in him. He really turned on that Heath Hembree fastball. When you see something like that, it’s easy to understand why the Yankees are “leaning towards” using Refsnyder (and Dustin Ackley) at second base next year.

3. July 25th: A-Rod goes third deck at Target Field. (box score)
I think my favorite part of this home run was John Flaherty’s call. Flaherty was talking about A-Rod and how he had never hit a home run at Target Field when Alex launched this Tommy Milone pitch into the third deck in left field. Check it out:

That’s great. It was the first of A-Rod’s three home runs that game and it measured 450 feet off the bat. Notice the score in the video: the Yankees were losing 5-0 at the time. A-Rod and his three home runs got the Yankees back in the game.

2. July 22nd: A-Rod takes Gausman to the bleachers. (box score)
This is the inevitable forgotten homer. The one I forgot about completely. Seems to happen with each and every one of these top five play posts I put together each year. Anyway, the Yankees were home against the Orioles, and A-Rod turned around a hanging 85 mph changeup from Kevin Gausman. It landed in the left field bleachers.

The unofficial but good enough for our purposes measurement: 453 feet. Aside from A-Rod’s monster home run, this was one of those nondescript midsummer games that blends into the blob of baseball we watch then forget each year.

1. April 17th: A-Rod goes way deep at the Trop. (box score)
I remember this game and this home run specifically as the moment it became clear Alex still had something left in the tank and was going to help the Yankees. There were a ton of questions about him coming into the season given his age and suspension and all that, and while the early returns were promising, we still wanted to see more evidence A-Rod could contribute. Then he did this:

That home run traveled 477 feet. It was the longest by a Yankee since A-Rod hit a 488 foot home run off Cliff Lee back in 2006 (video). Yeah, it’s been a while. It was also the longest home run by an American League player this season and the sixth longest in baseball overall. Only Giancarlo Stanton (484 twice), Paul Goldschmidt (482), Joc Pederson (480), and Michael Taylor (479) hit balls farther in 2015. Three of those five were hit at Coors Field, by way. (Pederson’s, Taylor’s, and one of Stanton’s.)

The season-long home run was the highlight of A-Rod’s monster game, in which he went 3-for-4 with two home runs and four runs driven in. He tied the game with a two-run blast in the sixth and drove in the go-ahead run with an eighth inning single. Huge home run and a huge game from Rodriguez.

The Five Biggest Hits of the 2015 Season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

After two years with no October baseball, the Yankees returned to the postseason in 2015, albeit briefly. They were knocked out in the wildcard game by the Astros. Still, it was fun to have meaningful baseball back in the Bronx this year, even if we all pulled our hair out waiting for the Yankees to clinch a postseason berth and then home field advantage in the wildcard game.

As always, getting to the postseason required some huge hits, and this season was no different. The Yankees had plenty of memorable hits in 2015. In this year’s annual biggest hits post, we’re going to look at those big hits two ways. First we’ll use WPA since that adds some context regarding the game situation and whatnot. Then we’ll look at the what I think are the five biggest hits on an emotional “holy crap that was huge” level. Make sense? Let’s start with the WPA.

5. September 14th: Heathcott gives the Yankees the lead. (box score)
The Yankees were in the middle of their September fade when they arrived in Tampa for a three-game series in the middle of the month. Heading into that September 14th game, the team had dropped five of their last six games, and they were falling further behind the Blue Jays in the AL East. Then, with one swing, Slade Heathcott temporarily made things all better with this go-ahead blast against the Rays:

The Yankees were losing that game 1-0 heading into the ninth, and they actually had the bases empty with two outs before rallying. Brett Gardner drew a walk, stole second, and scored on Alex Rodriguez‘s double to right-center. An intentional walk to Brian McCann brought Heathcott to the plate. Slade was only in the game because he replaced Rico Noel, who pinch-ran for Carlos Beltran the previous inning. That three-run dinger had a +0.48 WPA.

4. April 10th: Headley ties it up in the ninth. (box score)
The fourth biggest hit of the season came in the fourth game of the season, a game the Yankees lost, believe it or not. It was the nightmare 19-inning game against the Red Sox. The Red Sox were nursing a 3-2 lead in the ninth and had the Yankees down to their final out when Edward Mujica left a splitter up in the zone to Chase Headley. Headley tied the game with a dinger.

The Red Sox took the lead in the 16th, though the Yankees again tied the game in the bottom half of the inning on Mark Teixeira‘s solo homer. The WPA of Teixeira’s blast was +0.44. The WPA of Headley’s to tie the game? +0.49. Too bad the Yankees went on to lose the game in the 19th. That was a memorable game for annoying reasons, not happy ones. The loss dropped the Yankees to 1-3 in the early going. Womp womp.

3. August 18th: A-Rod‘s go-ahead grand slam. (box score)
For me, this was the forgotten big hit. It seems to happen every year when I write this post. I completely forget one of the five biggest hits by WPA. The Yankees were playing well in mid-August, winning four of five heading into this August 18th game. The Twins jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the seventh when Miguel Sano hit a go-ahead two-run homer off CC Sabathia. They stretched the lead to 4-1 later in the inning.

The Twins are the Twins though, and they always seem to find a way to lose to the Yankees. In the bottom of the seventh, generic lefty reliever Ryan O’Rourke loaded the bases with one out on a single (Headley) and two walks (Brendan Ryan, Gardner). The bottom of the order got the rally started. A-Rod capped it off with a go-ahead grand slam:

The Yankees took a 5-4 lead on Rodriguez’s four-run home run, which resulted in a +0.51 WPA swing. They tacked on some insurances runs — yes, the Yankees actually did that a few times this year — and won the game 8-4. That was the middle game of a three-game sweep over Minnesota. Unfortunately, that was also the last series of the season in which the Yankees were in first place in the AL East.

2. April 13th: Drew’s go-ahead grand slam in Baltimore. (box score)
Two of the five biggest hits of the season came in the span of four days. The Yankees started very slowly this year, losing four of their first five games, but they crushed the Red Sox on Sunday Night Baseball on April 12th to get things moving in the right direction.

The next night the Yankees mounded an impressive late inning comeback against the Orioles, who were the reigning division champs. The two teams traded runs early before Adam Jones gave the O’s a 4-2 lead with a sixth inning two-run home run off Michael Pineda. In the top of the seventh the Yankees loaded the bases with two outs against Tommy Hunter on two singles (Chris Young, Jacoby Ellsbury) and a walk (John Ryan Murphy). Stephen Drew then gave the Bombers a 6-4 lead with two-out grand slam. Here’s the video:

Drew started the year in a 2-for-17 (.118) funk before hitting that grand slam. He was actually pinch-hitting for Gardner, who took a pitch to the wrist earlier in the game. Gardner remained in and tried to bunt in his next two at-bats because he wasn’t comfortable swinging, then Joe Girardi went to Drew off the bench. Boy, did it pay off. The grand slam had a +0.56 WPA. The Yankees went 13-5 in their next 18 games.

1. July 3rd: McCann’s walk-off homer through the fireworks. (box score)
This came awfully close to being a Fourth of July walk-off home run. The Yankees and Rays played 12 innings on Independence Day Eve, and it was roughly 11:45pm ET when McCann won the game. Of course, the game doesn’t go to extra innings without another big hit earlier in the game. Teixeira tied the game 3-3 with a three-run blast in the eighth inning. That one had a +0.42 WPA. Here’s the video:

The Yankees had played pretty damn well in the first half, but they hit a bit of a slump in late-June/early-July, and they went into this July 3rd game with a 3-7 record in their previous ten games. They weren’t scoring at all either. They scored six runs total in their previous four games, and three of the six came in one game.

Anyway, the game eventually went to extra innings after Teixeira’s homer, and the Rays took a 5-3 lead on two walks and two singles in the 12th. It would have been worse had Headley not made a nice play to turn an inning ending 5-4-3 double play. The Yankees started to chip away in the bottom of the 12th, getting a run when Teixeira singled in Gardner, who drew a leadoff walk. Teixeira had a pretty huge game and absolutely no one remembers it.

Following Teixeira’s single, the Yankees had runners on first and second with one out, so a single probably would have tied the game. (Gregorio Petit pinch-ran for A-Rod.) Singles are for the weak though. McCann clobbered this no-doubt walk-off three-run home run. To the action footage:

Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff. Pretty good call by Michael Kay too. That was the Yankees’ first walk-off win of the season — they picked up their second the very next day, so I guess they did get that Fourth of July walk-off after all — and it sent them on another extended run of dominance. The Yankees won 14 of their next 19 games. McCann’s home run was the biggest hit of the season at a staggering +0.67 WPA. Yowza.

* * *

Now that we’ve gone through the five biggest hits according to WPA, let’s add some personal touch. WPA is a fine story telling stat, but it does lack context. It doesn’t know the division race situation, doesn’t know who’s on the mound, doesn’t know the Yankees lost three of their last four games, stuff like that. All of that definitely affects how big a hit can feel while watching a game live.

Anyway, so all things considered, here is my list of the five biggest hits of the season. This is totally subjective, of course. Feel free to disagree:

  1. August 14th: Carlos Beltran’s three-run homer in Toronto. (video) (box score)
  2. September 14th: Heathcott’s homer against the Rays.
  3. July 3rd: McCann’s walk-off homer against the Rays.
  4. June 2nd: Jones’ go-ahead 11th inning homer against the Mariners. (video) (box score)
  5. July 25th: A-Rod ties the game with his third homer of the night. (video) (box score)

The Beltran home run is pretty self-explanatory, right? The Yankees were swept at home by the Blue Jays the weekend prior to this game and it felt like the AL East was slipping away. Beltran came off the bench to pinch-hit and gave the team a colossal go-ahead three-run home run. Gosh, that was fun. The WPA of that dinger was a healthy +0.45.

The Heathcott homer ranks second because again, the Yankees were struggling and in the thick of the postseason race, plus Heathcott has been through an awful lot over the years. He’s a real easy guy to root for. Had someone else hit that home run, it still would have been awesome, but the fact Slade did it made it even more special. Seeing him have some success at the MLB was fun.

The Garrett Jones home run to me was huge, obviously. That’s why it’s No. 4. The Yankees did win the first game of that series in Seattle but had still gone 6-13 in their previous 19 games. They needed a big hit, and Drew gave it to them with a game-tying single off Fernando Rodney in the top of the ninth (video). Jones then won the game with a three-run home run off the lefty Joe Beimel in the top of the 11th. That homer had a +0.45 WPA and was by far Jones’ best moment in pinstripes.

Maybe I’m overrating the A-Rod home run. The Yankees were 9-3 in their previous 12 games at the time, after all. It’s not like they were desperate for a win. But still. It was the third of A-Rod’s three home runs on the night and it tied the game in the top of the ninth. Murphy won the game with his first home run of the season later in the inning. Alex’s third homer had a mere +0.34 WPA. It was still pretty damn awesome though.