Gardner working to correct messy mechanics, cut down on strikeouts

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

As a team, the Yankees have one of the lowest strikeout rates in baseball. They came out of last night’s game with a 19.6% strikeout rate, below the 20.5% league average and the tenth lowest rate in the game. Guys like Derek Jeter, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, Brian Roberts, and Yangervis Solarte have had little trouble putting the ball in play, and that’s five-ninths of the starting lineup right there.

And then there’s Brett Gardner. He has a career 18.2% strikeout rate and last season it was 20.9%, both of which are more or less league average when you consider baseball’s perpetually increasing strikeout rate. (MLB has set a new record high for strikeout rate in each of the last seven seasons.) This season as been different though. Gardner has a 24.4% strikeout rate, by far the highest of his career. His 6.1% swing-and-miss rate is also a career-high (but still below the 9.3% league average). He’s been piling up the whiffs in 2014.

Gardner isn’t oblivious to the strikeout issues he’s had these last few weeks and he’s working to correct them. He cites a mechanical flaw and says he isn’t planning any kind of major overhaul to his game. That would be a little silly at this point. From George King:

“I have been striking out too much,’’ said Gardner, who didn’t whiff Wednesday night against the Angels in Anaheim after fanning seven times in the previous four games. “My mechanics have been a little off, rushing the swing and swinging with my head moving. I have been swinging and missing more than I would like.’’

“I have to do a better job, but I don’t want to change my game. I have to be aggressive so when I get a pitch to hit, I put the ball in play and use my speed,’’ said Gardner, whose 31 Ks were tied for 22nd among AL hitters Thursday. “I felt better [Wednesday].’’

Even if you’ve never playing anything higher than Little League, you know that too much head movement during your swing is a recipe for swinging and missing. If you can’t see the ball properly, you’re not going to hit it. Gardner isn’t chasing more bad pitches or anything like that — 23.0% swing rate on pitches out of the zone, down from 23.6% last year — he’s just coming up empty when he does swing. The swing-and-miss punishment fits the head movement crime.

Gardner struck out 12 times in his first 40 plate appearances of the season (30%) and more recently he had a stretch with 11 strikeouts in 27 plate appearances (40.7%), which is just way too high, especially for a non-power hitter. He has gotten better as the season has progressed …

Brett Gardner strikeout rate

… but it’s clear there is still some work to be done. It’s not like Gardner isn’t hitting at all — both his AVG (.283) and OBP (.352) are better than last season (.273 and .344), he’s just hitting for zero power (.053 ISO) — he’s just struggling to put the ball in play. It’s actually kinda amazing he’s remained as productive as he has despite the high strikeout rate.

The most important thing is that Gardner isn’t chasing more pitches out of the zone. That would be a real big concern. Since his plate discipline seems to be fine and he’s identified a mechanical issue with his head, I think it’s only a matter of time before he snaps out of his swing-and-miss funk. It’s frustrating, I know it is, but as long as Gardner is getting on base, stealing bases (7-for-7 this year), and playing high-end defense, he remains a productive player for the Yankees and worthy of an everyday lineup spot.

Brian McCann and trying to beat the shift

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Through the first month or so of the season, I’m not sure anyone on the roster has been more disappointing than Brian McCann. The backstop has started his Yankees career with a 56 wRC+ in the first five-ish weeks, which ranks 177th out of 188 qualified hitters and dead last out of 15 qualified catchers. Chris Stewart had a 58 wRC+ last season, remember. The Yankees basically swapped Stewart for a balder, more expensive version in McCann. He’s been that bad so far.

As the fine broadcasters at the YES Network are wont to remind us day after day, inning after inning, the infield shift is widespread throughout baseball these days and McCann is one of its most popular targets. He was one of the most shifted against hitters in baseball last season and the same is true again so far this year. That was to be expected. Other teams weren’t going to stop shifting against McCann just because he was wearing a new uniform.

The shift has taken more than a few hits away from McCann this season and again, that is expected. Teams wouldn’t shift if they didn’t work. His .204 BABIP is a career low, especially when compared to his other healthy seasons (.234 before shoulder surgery in 2012), and down quite a bit from last season’s .261 BABIP. This isn’t all because of the shift — 8.3% of his plate appearances have ended with an infield pop-up this year, the fifth highest rate in baseball. Infield pop-ups are pretty much automatic outs and death to BABIP. His career pop-up rate prior to 2014 was only 4.0%, so this is way out of the norm.

Between the increased pop-up rate, the career low (by far) 3.5% walk rate, the career high (by far) 34.8% swing rate on pitches out of the zone*, and the ol’ eye test, I’m pretty comfortable saying McCann is pressing like hell at the plate. He’s trying to squeeze sap out of the bat. It happens. New team, new city, fat new contract, no beard, it’s understandable. Players press. McCann isn’t the first and he sure as hell won’t be the last. We’ve seen flashes of the productive power-hitting catcher the Yankees signed, but he hasn’t shown up consistently yet. It’ll happen, hopefully very soon.

* McCann’s strikeout rate (11.3%) is far below the league average and his best since 2008, so it’s not like he’s having trouble putting the ball in play.

Getting back on track, other clubs have been shifting against McCann quite a bit this season and lately it seems like he’s making an effort to go the other way. He’s always been a dead pull power hitter and that’s a big reason why he was so attractive to the Yankees, but lately I feel like we’ve seen more attempts to go to the opposite field. It doesn’t always work, but the attempt is there. Remember this?

McCann had three hits in that game and all three were to left field. I remember he ripped a line drive foul ball in that direction as well. Obviously a double to the wall is an extreme example of beating the shift by going the other way, but McCann did attempt a simple bunt towards third base to beat the shift on Monday. Here’s the play if you didn’t stay up late for the West Coast game:


The bunt went foul — it’s not easy to bunt Major League pitching, you know — but McCann made the attempt. He tried to beat the shift in the most basic way possible: by rolling the ball to where the defenders aren’t standing. That’s all a bunt is.

I didn’t watch enough of McCann during his time with the Braves to know whether these attempts to beat the shift are new or something he’s been trying for years. I would greatly prefer the former and hope this is a new development. Thankfully, we can check that. With an assist to the intimidatingly great Baseball Savant, here are some numbers on McCann’s tendencies to pull the ball or hit it the other way over the last few seasons. The table doesn’t include last night’s game because stupid West Coast:

Total Pitches Pulled Away Pitches Pulled Total Pitches Other Way Away Pitches Other Way
2014 7.7% 5.6% 7.3% 8.5%
2013 9.6% 8.4% 4.7% 4.4%
2012 9.7% 8.6% 5.0% 4.5%
2011 8.9% 7.3% 4.5% 4.7%

First, some explanations are in order:

  • Total Pitches Pulled: Percentage of all pitches pulled to the right side of the infield or to right field. McCann saw 452 pitches prior to last night and he pulled 35 of them to the right side of the field, or 7.7%.
  • Away Pitches Pulled: Percentage of pitches on the outer third or off the plate away that were pulled to the right side. McCann saw 270 pitches in those locations and pulled 15 of them to the right side, or 5.6%.
  • Total Pitches Other Way and Away Pitches Other Way are the same thing, only with pitches that were hit towards the left side of the infield or left field. Got it? Easy enough.

This season, either consciously or through the mirage of small sample size, McCann has been pulling fewer pitches to the right side of the field. He’s going the other way more often and that is especially true with pitches away from him, the ones you’re supposed to serve to the opposite field for a Nice Piece of Hitting. More than a few players (coughMarkTeixeiracough) will still try to pull those pitches and wind up rolling over on them, hitting a weak grounder right into the teeth of the shift.

We’ve seen McCann roll over on outside pitches this year, everyone does it, but he is doing it less often than he had the last few years. He’s taking those pitches to left field nearly twice as often as he had from 2011-12. I’m not going to bother looking at inside pitches because inside pitches are supposed to be pulled and pulled for power. Not everyone is Derek Jeter, who is going to the Hall of Fame because of his ability to pull his hands in and drive those pitches the other way. You want McCann to pull inside pitches because that’s how he can do some real damage.

Anyway, this is good! I think. We still need to wait a few more weeks to make sure this newfound tendency to go the other way is not just sample size noise, which is always possible. The data matches what my eyes were telling me though. McCann is indeed trying to hit the ball the other way more often. That could absolutely be contributing to his early season slump too. It’s a change in approach and sometimes those changes take time. McCann’s been hitting one way his entire life and now he appears to be changing it up. Of course there are going to be some bumps in the road.

Are teams going to stop shifting McCann because he’s hitting the ball the other way more often? Nope. Here are his spray charts. He still a pull-first hitter who yanks a ton of ground balls and line drives to the right side of the field and teams will stack their defense accordingly. McCann does appear to be making an attempt to go the other way more, particularly with pitches on the outer third of the plate. That will change how teams pitch him more than the defensive alignment. The most important thing is that he is hitting more balls away from the shift. The first few weeks of McCann’s tenure in New York have been ugly, no doubt about it, but there seems to be some serious work going on behind the scenes, and that could have positive results in time.

Top half of the lineup behind recent offense problems (which won’t last forever)

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Just last week, the Yankees scored 45 runs on a seven-game road trip through Tampa and Boston, scoring at least five runs in five of the seven games. The rebuilt lineup started the season slowly but that wasn’t going to last forever. The Yankees were getting on base, smacking homers, stealing bases, coming up with timely walks, hitting good pitching (14 runs in 9.2 innings against Jon Lester and David Price), and hitting bad pitching (11 runs in 6.1 innings against Erik Bedard and Felix Doubront). It was great.

The first four games of this homestand have not gone as well. The Bombers scored eight total runs in three games against the Angels over the weekend (still won two of three!) and last night they were shut down by whatever’s left of Chris Young‘s career. Two of their last four runs have scored because of defensive miscues — Nick Maronde wild pitch, Mike Zunino throwing error — so they’ve needed some help getting on the board these last two games. It’s annoying but every team goes through (multiple) stretches like this each year.

The Yankees haven’t been scoring lately simply because the top half of the lineup is in a collective funk. Here is what they’ve done over the last seven days, which includes that 14-5 beatdown of the Red Sox:

The fivesome has combined for seven extra-base hits during that time, all doubles. Obviously some parts have been mixed in the last few days (Brett Gardner leading off yesterday, for example), but that has been the team’s most used one through five lineup combination so far this season according to Baseball Reference. You’re not going to score many runs when your top five hitters do that. Guys like Brian Roberts, Mark Teixeira, and Yangervis Solarte are not going to carry a lineup all by themselves.

McCann had a good 6-7 game stretch a few weeks ago but otherwise he has not hit this year and it’s starting to get annoying. He isn’t striking out much — his 13.3% strikeout rate is well below the league average and his lowest rate in seven years — but he also isn’t walking much either (4.4%). Considering he walked in 9.7% of his plate appearances last year and in 9.4% for his career, I don’t think this will last. McCann is being victimized by the fourth highest infield pop-up rate (9.6%) among baseball’s 193 qualified hitters, which is by far a career high. Pop-ups are basically automatic outs. It seems like McCann is juuust missing and popping up some pitches he should be creaming. Since he isn’t struggling to make contact and his ground ball rate hasn’t spiked like it does for most players when they start to lose bat speed (his grounder rate has actually dropped this year), it seems like it’s only a matter of time before he breaks out.

Ellsbury and Beltran were hitting earlier this season, quite a bit too. They just hit the skids recently. It happens. Perhaps Ellsbury’s sore hand explains his slump, who knows. Soriano has long been one of the streakiest hitters in baseball, we all know this from his first stint in pinstripes, and right now he’s not hitting. A few weeks ago he was, also quite a bit. Jeter … I don’t really know what to expect from him going forward. He isn’t hitting for any power whatsoever but his overall .352 OBP is more than respectable. I’d be happy if he maintains that all season at his age and after all those injuries. Baseball is hard enough as it is. It’s extra hard for a soon-to-be 40-year-old coming off some serious leg problems.

When the Yankees struggled to score at the start of the season, I said it was way too early to worry and it was. They started hitting a day or two later. The same is true now. The top half of the lineup has stunk for a week now and the team has struggled to score runs on the homestand, but it is only a handful of games. McCann is the only one of these guys who hasn’t hit much all season but it’s not like the Yankees will bench him. That’s be pretty silly. They just need to work through it. Otherwise Ellsbury, Jeter, Beltran, and Soriano have just stopped hitting at the same time. It stinks but it won’t last forever. It’s just baseball.

Solarte has been just what the Yankees need early in the season

Tell me there isn't some Robbie Cano in that follow through. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)
Cano-esque with the follow through. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

Back in January, the Yankees signed a nondescript journeyman named Yangervis Solarte to a minor league contract. It was reported that he would compete with guys like Eduardo Nunez and Dean Anna for a bench spot in Spring Training, but come on. Yangervis Solarte? When I posted the news of the signing, I wrote “he’s likely at the very bottom of the infield depth chart.” You know why I wrote that? Because he was.

Then, in Spring Training, Solarte became that guy. The random player no one knew anything about who had a huge spring. Solarte hit .429/.489/.571 with two homers in 47 plate appearances during Grapefruit League play, and most years that would mean nothing. The Yankees tend to have very few roster spots up for grabs in camp. This year was different though, and Solarte played his way into consideration for a bench job –Brendan Ryan‘s injury certainly helped — a bench job he eventually won. He didn’t just take Nunez’s job, he took his 40-man roster spot and uniform number. Scorched earth.

Solarte made his Yankees debut as a pinch-hitter in the team’s second game of the season, banging into a rally killing double play in his first at-bat. He got the start the next day and went 3-for-3 with a double. He went 2-for-5 with two doubles the next day. Then 2-for-3 the next day. Then 1-for-3 with a double the next day and 1-for-3 with a walk the day after that. Yesterday, Solarte went 2-for-4 with two doubles. He got into the lineup and he hasn’t given Joe Girardi a reason to take him out.

So, now that the hot spring has turned into a hot start to the season, we’re sitting here wondering if Weird Al Yangervis (h/t @rxmeister28) is legit. And who knows, really? I don’t know, you don’t know, the Yankees don’t know, no one knows. I mean, obviously Solarte will not continue to hit .458/.519/.708 (248 wRC+) all season because no one does that. I’d be happy with literally half that production (124 wRC+). But, eventually balls like this …

… will not find a hole on the infield. Balls like this …

… will not drop in for a base hit. Balls like this …

… will not plop out of the outfielder’s glove. Let’s not kid ourselves here. Solarte has definitely been lucky these first eight games, and yes, it’s luck. That word is thrown around way too often to explain random events in baseball, but a pop-up falling between a bunch of infielders? Luck. A soft line drive clanking out of a Gold Glove right fielder’s mitt? Luck. Let’s call it what it is.

At the same time, Solarte’s MLB-leading (!) six doubles are not luck. Five of the six have either clanked off the wall or landed on the warning track. The other was a bloop that a diving outfielder just missed. Solarte has a little bit of pop in his bat — I’m not sure how much harder he can hit a ball than five doubles, it looked like he got a hold of each one — and he can turn on a mistake pitch. Some of the singles have been lucky. The doubles? Not so much.

Solarte, who is only 26 and had never played in the big leagues before this season, did not make the team just because of his hot spring. He made the team because he’s a switch-hitter who makes a lot of contact (one strikeout in 27 plate appearances so far) and can play reliable defense at second base, third base, and in left field. He can even fill in at shortstop in a pinch. Is he a great defender? No. But he is adequate, something you could not say about the man he replaced.

How long will Solarte’s hot start last? Who knows. It could end today, it could end next week, it could end in July. I’m not ready to declare him a long-term piece for the Yankees but he is playing very well right now and the production is in the bank. It happened and it helped the team win games while Mark Teixeira has been hurt and the middle of the order has gotten off to a slow start. He’s been just what the team needed.

Solarte should play everyday until he stops hitting, and moving him up a spot or three in the lineup isn’t a bad idea either. Even if he turns into a pumpkin tomorrow, the club has already gotten more out of him than they could have reasonably expected, and he’s been a huge boost early in the season.

Still way too early to worry about lifeless offense

(AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
(AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

The start of the season has a way of magnifying things. We can’t help it. We’ve been baseball starved for months and while Spring Training is fun in its own way, it can’t compare to meaningful games. Once the season starts and we see new faces in new uniforms, we get excited and look at things a little too deeply. I did it just this morning. If that CC Sabathia start happens any other day of the year, I probably wouldn’t think twice about it.

That same idea applies to the offense. The Yankees haven’t hit a lick these last two days, especially against Astros starters Scott Feldman and Jarred Cosart (combined 11.2 IP, 6 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 6 K). New York’s offense went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position last night and 2-for-8 in those spots on Opening Day. Few things are are frustrating as stranding runners. The much-hyped outfield is hitting a combined .103 with a .212 OBP while the oft-criticized infield has hit .278 with a .350 OBP. Up is down, black is white, nothing makes sense anymore.

That’s because the season is two games old. The Yankees as a team have had 73 plate appearances so far. That’s a small amount for a single player, nevermind an entire team. If these last two games happened in the middle of June — and trust me, they’ll stop hitting for a few games several times this year, that’s baseball — we’d notice but not think much about it. Because it’s the start of the season, it’s a Really Big Deal.

“We’re going to be fine, man. We haven’t been able to put anything together offensively, but we have what it takes to play better and win ballgames. We don’t need to worry about it,” said Carlos Beltran to Mark Feinsand after last night’s game. “That’s part of when a team is cold. Sometimes you put a few guys in scoring position and you have difficulties getting those guys in. It’s just the second game of the season. It’s important to win and every win counts, but we’ve had good pitching from them, so you have to give credit for what they’ve been doing.”

I mean, of course there’s a chance the Yankees really do stink offensively despite all the new additions. That’s always possibility but I find it very hard to believe. Jacoby Ellsbury (calf) and Alfonso Soriano (flu, shoulder) were behind the other position players in camp because of injuries, Mark Teixeira (wrist) and Derek Jeter (legs) are coming back from lost seasons, so it’s no surprise they look rusty. The offense has positively stunk these last two games, but it has been just that, two games. It’s annoying but hardly a cause for concern at this point.