Batting average isn’t everything, but the lack of it is really hurting the Yankees

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

Last night, in the series opening loss to the Blue Jays, the Yankees were held to two runs or fewer for the 21st time in 50 games this season. No AL team has more games with no more than two runs in 2016. The Yankees were also held to five hits or fewer for the 11th time in 50 games. That’s the third most in the league.

It’s no surprise then that the Yankees came into Tuesday with the second fewest runs scored (192) and the second lowest runs per game average (3.84) in the AL. Only the lowly Twins (187 and 3.74) are worse. The offense has been a big problem overall this season, and, not coincidentally, their team batting average (.233) is the lowest it’s been through 50 games since 1969, as noted by our Katie Sharp. Check out last night’s lineup:

Yankees batting averages

Three players in the starting lineup were hitting over .250 and five of the nine were hitting below .230. That’s almost the regular lineup too. Aaron Hicks was starting in place of Alex Rodriguez, and, sadly, Hicks’ .198 average is an upgrade over A-Rod‘s .170 average. Otherwise that’s the starting lineup. That’s pretty close to what Joe Girardi would send out there in a winner take all wildcard game tomorrow.

Obviously batting average is not the only — or best — way to evaluate offense. Walks and hitting for power matter too. Batting average is not nothing though. We’ve reached the point where batting average has become underrated. The best thing a hitter can do at the plate is not make an out, and hits are always better than walks. Always always always. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Walks should supplement hits, not replace them.

The Yankees as a team really stink at hitting for average. Look at that lineup and tell me how many players have a lower batting average than what you’d reasonably expect coming into the season. Brett Gardner? Sure. He’s not a true talent .217 hitter. He hit .259 last year and .265 in over 3,000 plate appearances since becoming a regular in 2010. Mark Teixeira doesn’t really hit for average anymore but .195 is low even for him.

That’s probably it, right? You could argue Starlin Castro is better than a .250 hitter, though he did hit .265 in over over 1,800 plate appearances from 2013-15, and a 15-point swing in either direction is still within the range of “that’s baseball.” I guess you could argue Chase Headley is better than a .229 hitter too, but eh. That might be pushing it even as good as he’s been in May (.284/.348/.425) and after hitting .259 last year.

Point is, that is close to the normal for the offense in terms of batting average. Gardner and Teixeira (and A-Rod) are underperforming expectations that’s really it. Everyone else is pretty much where you’d expect them to be. Combine the lack of batting average with the lack of power — nine homers combined for Teixeira and Rodriguez through 50 games, woof — and you get, well, one of the worst offenses in the league.

It is harder right now to get a base hit than it has been at any point since the mound was lowered in 1969. I’m talking around the league, not just the Yankees. The MLB batting average is .252 right now. It was .262 when the Yankees won the World Series in 2009. A ten-point drop league-wide in seven years is huge! Go back ten years to 2006 and the league batting average was .269. There’s roughly 165,000 at-bats in MLB each season. The difference between a .269 average and a .252 average is over 2,800 hits. That’s crazy.

All sorts of things are contributing to the decline in offense and batting average. The infield shift is an obvious reason, but it’s not the only reason. More specialized relievers, the expanding strike zone, super detailed scouting reports, the increase in velocity — the MLB average fastball velocity is 92.3 mph this year, up from 90.9 mph in 2008, the first full year of PitchFX — all of that stuff has led to the decline in batting average.

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

Since the start of last season the Yankees have been, by far, the most shifted team in baseball. They’ve had 1,792 at-bats with the shift on since the start of last year. The Mariners are a distant second at 1,402 such at-bats. The shift has definitely played a role in the team’s inability to hit for average. Teixeira and Brian McCann are the most obvious victims, but shift-able switch-hitters like Headley and Carlos Beltran have been hurt too.

I’ve come to realize shifts are like strikeouts. You can have one guy in your lineup who will strike out 180+ times a year, maybe two if you really want to push it, but any more than that is a major problem. Same with the shift. One or maybe two shift-able hitters is fine. But five or six like the Yankees have at times? Nope. It doesn’t work. It’s too difficult to sustain rallies that way. We’ve seen too many rallies die on grounders hit to shallow right field the last few seasons.

The Yankees are — and have been for a few years now — one of the better contact teams in baseball, believe it or not. Their team 19.4% strikeout rate is sixth lowest in baseball. It was 19.1% from 2014-15, fifth lowest in baseball. There’s good contact and bad contact though, and the fact that they have the eight highest ground ball rate (47.7%) and 11th highest soft contact rate (19.8%) this year is bad news. Their MLB low .265 BABIP isn’t an accident. Weak grounders tend to go for outs, especially when you lack team speed like the Yankees.

There’s also this: the Yankees are old. Old hitters lose bat speed, which is why Beltran and Teixeira and A-Rod are no longer the hitters they once were. Even players in their early 30s like Gardner and Headley and Jacoby Ellsbury begin to slip. The team’s two under-30 regulars are Castro and Didi Gregorius, and let’s face it, they’re flawed hitters. They both tend to swing at everything. Aside from Gardner and Teixeira (and A-Rod) getting out of their slumps, there’s not much reason to expect the Yankees to post a higher batting average going forward.

The Yankees have focused on acquiring left-handed hitters who can take advantage of the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium and that intuitively makes sense. It doesn’t seem to have worked all that well, however. Going forward, in terms of overall team building, the best approach may be to focus on hitters with the skills to hit for average, then let any power boost from the ballpark come naturally.

Forget about hitting .300 for the second. Among players with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, the Yankees haven’t had a .285 hitter since Robinson Cano in 2013. The last regular other than Cano and Derek Jeter to hit .285+ for the Yankees was Nick Swisher in 2010 (.288). Batting average isn’t the only thing that matters. We know that. It also can’t be ignored either. The 2016 Yankees couldn’t make it any more obvious.

A-Rod’s return will help the Yankees even though he limits their flexibility

The Return of Rod. (Patrick Smith/Getty)
The Return of Rod. (Patrick Smith/Getty)

Let me preface this by saying this is not a “the Yankees are better off without Alex Rodriguez” post. Quite the opposite, in fact. Rodriguez started slow this season (like many Yankees) but had started to turn things around right before injuring his hamstring. The Yankees can use his right-handed bat. No doubt about it.

That being said, there is no denying A-Rod‘s return robs the Yankees of some roster flexibility. He can’t play the field and he provides negative value on the bases. As long as Rodriguez hits, you’ll live with that other stuff, and I do think he’ll hit. “Alex is a professional hitter, we know he is going to be able to hit,” said fill-in DH Carlos Beltran to Kevin Kernan earlier this week.

Rodriguez’s return means a few different things for the roster and the Yankees in general. Some of it is no big deal, and some of it is pretty damn important. His return changes the entire complexion of the team. Consider this a preview of A-Rod’s return from the DL.

The Roster Move

Might as well start here. I fully expect the Yankees to send Rob Refsnyder back to Triple-A Scranton to clear a roster spot for A-Rod, and yeah, I’m sure there will be outrage. In our poll last week nearly 60% of the over 2,000 votes were in favor of keeping Refsnyder and sending Ronald Torreyes down. I just can’t see it happening.

Torreyes started two games over the weekend, including one at third base, a position the Yankees have been trying to teach Refsnyder. Also, I don’t think the Yankees want to use Starlin Castro as the backup shortstop. I think they consider him a second baseman and a second baseman only for the time being. All signs point to Refsnyder going down for A-Rod.

The DH Spot

It’s really hard to ignore how well Beltran took to the DH spot during Alex’s absence. Beltran has hit .322/.344/.780 (196 wRC+) with six homers as a DH this year compared to only .245/.278/.392 (80 wRC+) with four homers as a right fielder. It’s not a huge amount of data — Beltran has batted 64 times as a DH and 108 times as a right fielder — but it’s what we have.

A-Rod’s return is going to push Beltran back into right field, which, at the very least, is going to hurt the team defense considerably. If you buy into the numbers, Beltran’s offense will take a hit as well. (I don’t think it’s quite that simple, especially not with those sample sizes.) What else can the Yankees do though? They’re at their best when Beltran and A-Rod are in the lineup, and there’s only one way to get both into the lineup at the same time.

(Stephen Lam/Getty)
(Stephen Lam/Getty)

What About Hicks?

Beltran going back to right field means Girardi and the Yankees will again have to find ways to get Aaron Hicks into the lineup. Hicks hit .276/.338/.431 (107 wRC+) in 69 plate appearances during A-Rod’s absence and, just as importantly, I feel he’s looked way more comfortable at the plate. Back in April he seemed to be jumping at everything. It looked like he was trying to hit a five-run home run each time up.

The plan coming into the season was to give the regulars a little more rest and that hasn’t happened yet, partly because A-Rod was hurt and partly because the Yankees really struggled for a while, so Joe Girardi kept running everyone out there in hopes of getting a win. Hopefully now that Hicks has shown he can productive with regular at-bats Girardi will be more willing to use him.

These things have a way of working themselves out. Someone will get hurt or banged up and need a few days, which will clear playing time for Hicks. Until that happens, the only way to get Hicks into the lineup is by sitting Beltran, A-Rod, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Brett Gardner more frequently. That’s easier said than done, especially considering the way Beltran and Ellsbury have been hitting of late.

Can He Really Not Play The Field? Like At All?

This section is probably a waste of words and brainpower because the Yankees have been completely unwilling to play Rodriguez in the field since last May. He didn’t even bring a glove to Spring Training. They continue to say he’s a DH and a DH only. I’m not asking whether he can play third base twice a week or anything like that though. Can A-Rod really not play five or six innings at first base once every ten days or so? With a fly ball pitcher on the mound? And give him the next day off to recover?

It’s not much, but something like that can be a help because it’ll get Beltran (and Mark Teixeira) off his feet and Hicks into the lineup. Teixeira’s neck is acting up again and he hasn’t exactly been tearing the cover off the ball either. Sitting him for a few innings here and there wouldn’t kill the Yankees at the moment. There’s no reason to think this will happen though. A-Rod’s medicals must be really scary for the Yankees to not even consider playing him in the field once in a blue moon.

* * *

The Yankees are a better team today than they were yesterday because A-Rod is back. When he’s healthy, I think he can still be a very productive player. The lack of flexibility totally stinks though. It really does. Beltran has to go back to right field and Hicks has to go back to playing sporadically. That’s not ideal. Girardi and the Yankees have to figure out a way to make this work, because A-Rod can give the team a big lift as they look to continue climbing the standings.

Game 35: A New Day

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Last night’s game went about as poorly as possible. Not only did the Yankees lose the game itself, they also lost Luis Severino to an arm injury and taxed their bullpen. Getting humbled by Chris Sale was no fun either. Today is a new day though. The Yankees have to continue to dig themselves out of this hole, and they’ll have to do it against another tough pitcher in Jose Quintana this afternoon. Here is the White Sox’s lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. 2B Starlin Castro
  3. 1B Mark Teixeira
  4. RF Carlos Beltran
  5. C Brian McCann
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. CF Aaron Hicks
  8. SS Didi Gregorius
  9. DH Austin Romine
    RHP Ivan Nova

It’s a bit cloudy in New York today and there is rain in the forecast a little later on. Nothing that should impact the game unless it goes long or into extra innings. This afternoon’s game is going to start a bit after 1pm ET and you can watch on YES. Enjoy.

Injury Updates: Jacoby Ellsbury (hip) is available today and the plan is to have him in tomorrow’s starting lineup … Severino (triceps) will make at least one minor league rehab start, according to Brian Cashman. Cashman also seemed to indicate Severino is not guaranteed a rotation spot once he’s healthy.

Roster Moves: As expected, the Yankees called up Chad Green today. They also called up Conor Mullee, which is pretty awesome. The 28-year-old has had his elbow rebuilt three times and now he gets affordable health care for life. Awesome. To make room on the 25-man roster, Severino was placed on the 15-day DL and Gary Sanchez was sent down to Triple-A. I assumed the Sanchez call-up was a short-term thing, but not this short-term. Whatevs. Greg Bird and Bryan Mitchell were transferred to the 60-day DL to clear 40-man spots for Green and Mullee.

Game 34: Reverse Lock?

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
(Patrick Smith/Getty)

The ten-game homestand has gone about as well as we could have reasonably hoped so far. The Yankees took two of three from the Red Sox and three of four (!) from the Royals, and now they get three with the White Sox, who look totally legit as a contender. Lots of teams get off to hot starts and fizzle. I think the ChiSox are for real. The pitching is great and the infield upgrades they made over the winter are massive, especially defensively.

Tonight the Yankees draw Chris Sale, who is on the very short list of the best pitchers in baseball. They counter with Luis Severino, who has been one of the worst pitchers in baseball this year. It’s true. He ranks 109th in ERA (6.12) and 97th in FIP (4.92) among the 117 pitchers to throw at least 30 innings this season. That said, Sale comes into the game 7-0. Severino is 0-5. There’s only one way this game can end. This has reverse lock written all over it. Here is the ChiSox’s lineup and here is the Yanks’ lineup:

  1. CF Aaron Hicks
  2. 2B Starlin Castro
  3. RF Carlos Beltran
  4. 1B Mark Teixeira
  5. 3B Chase Headley
  6. DH Gary Sanchez
  7. LF Brett Gardner
  8. C Austin Romine
  9. SS Ronald Torreyes
    RHP Luis Severino

It has been raining in New York for much of the afternoon but it stopped just a few minutes ago. The forecast says there’s no more wet stuff coming tonight, so the game will begin on time. The game is scheduled to begin at 7:05pm ET and you can watch on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy.

Injury Updates: CC Sabathia (groin) threw a bullpen today. It was his first time throwing off a mound since being placed on the DL … Jacoby Ellsbury (hip) is progressing and remains on track to return sometime this weekend. My guess is Sunday is the earliest we’ll see him.

Roster Move: Lefty Tyler Olson was send down to Triple-A to get Sanchez on the roster, the Yankees announced. They’re back to a seven-man bullpen and a four-man bench, though it’s really a three-man bench with Ellsbury banged up.

Game 33: Teixeira Returns

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

After two days on the bench with neck spasms, Mark Teixeira returns to the lineup tonight for the series finale against the Royals. His defense has been missed, for sure. His bat? That’s been a problem this year. It’s May 12th and Teixeira is slugging .298. Yikes. The Yankees need him to start hitting some home runs and soon. Hopefully a few days on the bench will recharge the batteries. Here is the Royals’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. 2B Starlin Castro
  3. 1B Mark Teixeira
  4. DH Brian McCann
  5. RF Carlos Beltran
  6. CF Aaron Hicks
  7. SS Didi Gregorius
  8. 3B Chase Headley
  9. C Austin Romine
    RHP Nathan Eovaldi

It’s another really nice day in New York. Just a few clouds and a nice breeze. Pretty good night to spend outside. Tonight’s game will begin at 7:05pm ET and you can watch on YES locally and MLB Network nationally. Enjoy.

Injury Updates: Alex Rodriguez (hamstring) did some light running and hit off a tee. He’s eligible to be activated one week from today … Jacoby Ellsbury (hip) is still on track to return this weekend.

Roster Move: Lefty Tyler Olson was called up and outfielder Ben Gamel was sent down today, the Yankees announced. Olson, who last pitched Saturday (45 pitches), will take over as the long man on a temporary basis following Phil Coke‘s extended outing last night.

Game 32: Take the Series

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

The Yankees have been playing much better over the last week or so, and they come into tonight’s game winners of five of their last seven. Tonight they have a chance to clinch a win of a four-game series over the Royals, the defending World Series champs. Winning a four-game set is never easy, not even against a bad team, and Kansas City is no pushover. Here is the Royals’ lineup and here is the Yankees’ lineup:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. 2B Starlin Castro
  3. C Brian McCann
  4. DH Carlos Beltran
  5. 1B Dustin Ackley
  6. CF Aaron Hicks
  7. SS Didi Gregorius
  8. 3B Chase Headley
  9. RF Ben Gamel
    RHP Michael Pineda

It has been a lovely day in New York. There is no rain in the forecast tonight. Nice little evening for baseball, I’d say. Tonight’s game will begin at 7:05pm ET and you can watch on YES locally and ESPN nationally. Enjoy the game.

Injury Updates: Alex Rodriguez (hamstring) has been running on the treadmill and it appears he’ll be ready to return once his 15 days are up … CC Sabathia (groin) played catch again and feels fine. It’s possible he’ll be able to rejoin the rotation once his 15 days are up without needing a rehab start … Jacoby Ellsbury (hip) did some light running and took batting practice. Joe Girardi said he hopes to get him back in the lineup this weekend … Mark Teixeira (neck) is out again and the plan was to give him two days off anyway. He’ll be re-evaluated tomorrow.

It’s working now, but the Yankees should not make a habit of playing short-handed this season

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Thanks in large part to bench players Dustin Ackley and Aaron Hicks, the Yankees beat the Royals last night and won for the fifth time in seven games. Ackley and Hicks went a combined 3-for-6 with two walks, three runs scored, and three runs driven in. Ackley drove in the game tying run in the seventh and Hicks followed by plating what was temporarily the go-ahead run.

Last night was Ackley’s fourth straight start and fifth in the last six games. Hicks started for the seventh straight game and eighth time in nine games. They’re in the lineup because of injuries, obviously. Alex Rodriguez pulled his hamstring last week, allowing the Yankees to slide Carlos Beltran into the DH spot and play Hicks everyday. Ackley is in there because Jacoby Ellsbury is day-to-day with a hip issue.

Mark Teixeira entered the infirmary yesterday with neck spasms, clearing the way for Ben Gamel to make his first career start. The Teixeira and Ellsbury injuries mean the Yankees had a two-man bench last night: Ronald Torreyes and Austin Romine. It almost came back to bite them when they couldn’t pinch run for Brian McCann in the seventh. Luckily it didn’t matter.

In all likelihood the Yankees will again have a two-man bench tonight. Ellsbury has not yet tested his hip with full sprints and Teixeira is one day into an injury that is expected to require two or three days. This is a messy situation. The veteran players are hurting, but not hurting enough to require a DL stint, so the Yankees are playing short-handed. They have a 23-man roster while their opponent has a full 25-man unit.

“I think Torreyes gives you a ton of options. I can put him almost anywhere. (The bench is) short, but I think we have options that should make it okay,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings yesterday. And he’s right. Torreyes gives them an option pretty much everywhere, so they’re not going to be forced into playing someone out of position. (You could argue Ackley in right field is out of position given his arm.)

That said, thanks to the makeup of that rained out game in Detroit, the Yankees are eight games into a stretch of 40 games in 41 days. Their next off-day is 12 days away and the short bench means they can’t rest people in addition to not pinch-hitting and pinch-running. Girardi’s options are really limited for the time being and it is absolutely a disadvantage.

The Yankees don’t really have a timetable for Ellsbury’s return — “If you’re in a week and you don’t feel he’s going to be ready anytime soon, you might as well backdate (the DL stint),” said Girardi — and let’s face it, he’s not exactly the quickest healer in the world. It’s already been four days and he’s not sprinting yet, so it’s not like Ellsbury will be back in the lineup tonight.

I get why the Yankees are hesitant to put him Ellsbury on the DL, but stuff like this can’t happen all season. They can’t slowly nurse players back to health and play short-handed, especially when multiple players are banged up like Ellsbury and Teixeira right now. The Yankees are playing much better of late but they still have to dig themselves out of this early season hole. That will be tough as it is. Imagine trying to do it short-handed?

Avoiding injuries just isn’t realistic. Players are going to get hurt. That’s baseball. The Yankees should be a little more liberal with their DL usage going forward, especially when it’s a situation like Ellsbury, where he might miss a week anyway before being ready to play again. The Yankees have some depth in the minors. It’s okay to use it. They’re already made things hard enough on themselves this year.