It seems one of the biggest universal pet peeves in baseball is swinging at the first pitch when the pitcher is struggling to throw strikes. In the second inning two nights ago the Yankees had runners at first and second with no outs after Martin Perez walked Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez, then Brian McCann swung at the first pitch and grounded into a double play. That took the wind out of everyone’s sails.
As fans, seeing McCann swing at the first pitch in that spot was frustrating, but players will tell you the first pitch might be the best one to hit in those situations. The pitcher doesn’t want to fall behind in the count again, so they lay a first pitch fastball in the zone, figuring the hitter might take it. They try to steal a strike when they’re struggling to locate. Unfortunately McCann hit into the double play and that was that.
The Yankees have struggled to score runs this season, and following Wednesday’s game I noted 12 of the 34 men they sent to the plate saw two pitches or less. They were swinging early and often that night. On the season though, only one team has swung less often than the Yankees. The Yankees have a 42.3% swing rate in 2016. The Brewers are at 41.4% and the MLB average is 45.6%. Let’s break it down a little further.
|NYY MLB Rank||30th||1st||6th||14th|
Do you see what’s going on there? The Yankees have the highest contact rate in baseball on pitches in the strike zone (Z-Contact%), but they also swing at those pitches (Z-Swing%) less than any other team. They also don’t swing at many pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%). This is good! You want your players to a) make contact when they swing, and b) not chase stuff off the plate.
But dead last in swing rate on pitches in the zone? Those are the pitches you’re supposed to swing at. Last season the Yankees swung at 62.6% of the pitches they saw in the zone with largely the same lineup. The only difference is Starlin Castro instead of Stephen Drew. The Yankees were still a bottom five team in Z-Swing% last year — they were also top three with an 88.8 Z-Contact% — but the gap between 2015 and 2016 is pretty substantial.
The obvious caveat: it’s still early and this stuff can change in a hurry. (For what it’s worth, swing and contact rates do stabilize fairly quickly.) That said, I do wonder if the Yankees are perhaps being a bit too passive as a team, and are letting hittable pitches go by on occasion. Let’s look at some individual players really quick:
|2015 Z-Swing%||2016 Z-Swing%||Change from 2015-16|
Every single player in the starting lineup except Gregorius is swinging at fewer pitches in the zone this season than they did a year ago. Most of them are swinging at considerably fewer pitches too. We’re talking a difference of three percentage points or more for most guys.
Now, again, the 2016 season is only 20 games old, and weird stuff happens in samples of 20 games. But the entire team has a lower Z-Swing%, so I wonder if that has something to do with the new hitting coaches. The Yankees replaced Kevin Long with the Jeff Pentland/Alan Cockrell tandem last year, then replaced Pentland/Cockrell with Cockrell/Marcus Thames this year. Cockrell was promoted to the main hitting coach to replace Pentland with Thames taking over as his assistant.
Is it possible for a new hitting coach(es) to instill a philosophy like “swing less?” I suppose so, but the Yankees are a pretty veteran team. These guys know what they’re doing at the plate. And even if the new coaches did preach swing less, what’s to be gained? A few more walks? Believe me, I know how important on-base percentage is, but the goal first and foremost is to get a hit, and letting hittable pitches go by is no way to do that.
The Yankees have the highest Z-Contact% and the lowest Z-Swing% in baseball, so it’s easy to say they should simply swing more often and the offense will come. I don’t think it’s quite that simple though. If they start swinging for the sake of swinging, their Z-Contact% rate is going to come down in a hurry. You want to swing at pitches in the strike zone but not necessarily every pitch in the strike zone.
I don’t have an answer to the question in the title. I’m inclined to say this is all small sample size noise and eventually the team’s Z-Swing% will climb upwards. I do think it’s fair to wonder whether the Yankees are taking too many hittable pitches. The players know they’re struggling to score, they feel the pressure, and sometimes you can overthink things and let good pitches go by. They’re not going to walk their way out of this slump though. A few more swings on pitches in the zone can’t hurt.