Previewing the Right-Handed Power

(AP)
(AP)

Last year, the Yankees had a power problem from the right side of the plate. Alex Rodriguez did, well, poorly enough that he essentially retired early. As right-handers, Chase Headley and Mark Teixeira had wOBAs of .301 (86 wRC+) and .307 (90 wRC+) respectively with basement-level power: .082 ISO for Headley and .109 for Tex. Starlin Castro did okay with a 93 wRC+ as a righty batter, but once Carlos Beltran left, the Yankees were left with a power void on the right side.

All told, the Yankees hit .251/.305/.415/.720 as right-handers, with a .309 wOBA and a 90 wRC+, and an ISO of .164. The American League’s collective right-handers hit .261/.321/.430/.752 with a .323/101/.169 wOBA/wRC+/ISO split. Gary Sanchez‘s arrival — Ruthian in nature as it was — helped erase some of the stain of the Bombers’ poor performance from the right side and, hopefully, signaled things to come.

A full year of Sanchez will be (hopefully) complemented by the other right-handed power potential in the lineup in the persons of Aaron Judge and new addition Matt Holliday. Starlin Castro returns, obviously, and even if his slash line wasn’t so great, he still did provide over 20 homers, good for any right-hander, especially one at second base. Chase Headley joins them as a switch hitter, and hopefully he can bounce back to his career levels as a right-handed hitter (.319 wOBA/102 wRC+/.136 ISO).

The lineup will feature more balance this year, with those four above as the right side and Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Didi Gregorius, and Greg Bird representing the left side of things. Looking things over, there’s really not a ton of power potential from either side. While Didi just had a breakout year with power, Ellsbury and Gardner aren’t going to be counted on for extra bases anymore. Bird certainly showed ability in 2015, but coming off of a shoulder injury, it’s easy to imagine some of his power being sapped.

Matt Holliday, then, becomes a very important part of 2017. Of any player on the team, he has the longest track record of solid performance, especially in the power department. Considering he’ll hit in either the three, four, or five spot in the lineup, his pop from the right side is paramount. As an aside, I’m very excited about Matt Holliday being on this team. I’ve long been a fan of his and definitely think he’s got enough left in the tank for a pretty big season.

It’s hard to count on a new guy and a couple of youngsters like Judge and Sanchez, but if those players stay their courses, things will be just fine. Judge has shown the ability to adapt to new levels and Sanchez seems to have the talent to adjust to new things; if they follow those tracks and Holliday keeps on keeping on, the right side of the plate will be much improved for the Yankees.

Where does each 2017 Yankee hit the ball the hardest?

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Ever since Statcast burst on to the scene last year, exit velocity has become part of the baseball lexicon. It’s everywhere now. On Twitter, in blog posts, even on broadcasts. You name it and exit velocity is there. Ten years ago getting velocity readings of the ball off the bat felt impossible. Now that information is all over the internet and it’s free. Free!

Needless to say, hitting the ball hard is a good thing. Sometimes you hit the ball hard right at a defender, but what can you do? Last season exit velocity king Giancarlo Stanton registered the hardest hit ball of the Statcast era. It left his bat at 123.9 mph. And it went for a 4-6-3 double play because it was a grounder right at the second baseman.

That’s a pretty good reminder exit velocity by itself isn’t everything. Launch angle is important too, as is frequency. How often does a player hit the ball hard? One random 115 mph line drive doesn’t tell us much. But if the player hits those 115 mph line drives more than anyone else, well that’s useful.

The Yankees very clearly believe in exit velocity as an evaluation tool. We first learned that three years ago, when they traded for Chase Headley and Brian Cashman said his exit velocity was ticking up. Former assistant GM Billy Eppler once said Aaron Judge has top tier exit velocity, and when he reached he big leagues last year, it showed. Among players with at least 40 at-bats in 2016, Judge was second in exit velocity, so yeah.

With that in mind, I want to look at where each projected member of the 2017 Yankees hits the ball the hardest. Not necessarily on the field, but within the strike zone. Every swing is different. Some guys are good low ball hitters, others are more adept at handling the inside pitch, and others can crush the ball no matter where it’s pitched. Not many though. That’s a rare skill. Those are the Miguel Cabreras of the world.

Also, I want to limit this to balls hit in the air, because as we saw in the Stanton video above, a hard-hit grounder is kinda lame. Hitting the ball hard in the air is the best recipe for success in this game. The average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives last season was 92.2 mph, up ever so slightly from 91.9 mph in 2015. I’m going to use 100 mph as my threshold for a hard-hit ball because, well, 100 mph is a nice round number. And it’s comfortably above the league average too.

So, with that in mind, let’s see where each Yankee hit the ball the hardest last season (since that’s the most relevant data), courtesy of Baseball Savant. There are a lot of images in this post, so the fun starts after the jump. The players are listed alphabetically. You can click any image for a larger view.

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The key to a Matt Holliday resurgence: Getting the ball airborne more often

(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
(Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

A little more than a week ago, the Yankees landed their new veteran designated hitter by signing Matt Holliday to a one-year deal worth $13M. Carlos Beltran was reportedly the team’s first choice, but Beltran went to the Astros, so it was on to Plan B. I thought the Yankees were smart to avoid a big money DH like Edwin Encarnacion or Mark Trumbo, and instead go with Holliday on a one-year deal.

With the Cardinals this past season Holliday hit .246/.322/.461 (109 wRC+) with 20 homers in 426 plate appearances around a broken thumb caused by a hit-by-pitch. It was his worst offensive season since his rookie year back in 2004. The Yankees are hoping Holliday, who turns 37 next month, can bounce back for two reasons. One, he’ll be off his feet as the DH and won’t wear down physically. And two, exit velo. From my thoughts post:

3. One reason to expect Holliday’s numbers to bounce back next season: his .253 BABIP was by far a career low and well below his career .333 BABIP. That happened even though his hard contact rate (38.5%) was comfortably above the MLB average (31.4%) and his career average (35.6%). In fact, among the 375 players to put at least 100 balls in play this past season, Holliday had the third highest average exit velocity (94.7 mph). Only Nelson Cruz (95.9 mph) and Giancarlo Stanton (95.1 mph) were better. Miguel Cabrera (94.5 mph) was fourth. That is some good company. Also, according to Mike Petriello, Holliday put 42.5% of his balls in play at 100 mph or better, the fourth best rate in baseball. Exit velocity isn’t everything — it’s possible to hit a 100 mph pop-up, you know — but it’s not nothing either. Holliday can still strike the ball with authority. That suggests that .253 BABIP, which was so far out of line with the rest of his career, might not last.

Generally speaking, hit the ball hard and good things will happen. Defenders have less time to react and that’s good for the hitter, especially these days with fielders precisely positioned based on the hitter’s tendencies. Holliday did, by just about every publicly available metric, hit the ball hard in 2016. He didn’t get the results he wanted though, and according to Holliday, he hit too many grounders. In nerd terms, his launch angle was bad.

“Quite frankly, I probably hit too many hard-hit ground balls,” said Holliday to George King. “Nowadays with how good the infielders are, it’s not a good idea. I think if I can combine the exit velocity with a little bit more lift and have my misses be more in the air than on the ground, my numbers could really get back toward where they have been my whole career. I think it’s a good sign that the exit velocity was really high. I did have a little bit of bad luck, but that’s no excuse.”

This past season exactly half of Holliday’s balls in play were ground balls. His 50.0% grounder rate was a career high, up from 48.5% in 2015 and eclipsing his previous career high of 49.5% set back during his rookie year. Here is Holliday’s ground ball rate over the last three years:

matt-holliday-ground-balls

The plateaus in 2015 and 2016 are time missed to injury. In each of the last three seasons, Holliday began the year by beating the ball into the ground before starting to get it more airborne during the summer months. His overall ground ball rate is trending upward, but the injuries in 2015 (quad) and 2016 (thumb) robbed him of second half at-bats, when he was doing a better job of getting the ball in the air. That may be skewing his overall rate.

An increase in ground balls is a classic sign a player is losing bat speed. It happens to everyone at some point. As their bat slows, they don’t square the ball up quite as often, and that split-second is often the difference between a line drive and a ground ball. Holliday had some weird things going on statistically. The exit velocity indicates he hit the ball very hard overall. The career high grounder rate suggests something was still off.

Here are two heat maps showing pitch locations against Holliday. The brighter the red, the more pitches in that location. The brighter the blue, the fewer pitches in that location. The 2015 season is on the left. The 2016 season is on the right. You can click the image for a larger view.

matt-holliday-pitch-locations1

Holliday saw a lot more pitches down in the zone this past season than he did a year ago. His 2014 heat map looks like the 2015 heat map as well, meaning more pitches in the middle and not nearly as many down and away. The pitch selection against Holliday didn’t change all that much from 2015 to 2016. Just normal year-to-year fluctuations. When you see that many down and away pitches to a righty, you think slider, and Holliday saw 16.1% sliders in 2015. In 2016, it was 16.8%. His fastball rate went from 61.2% to 62.4%. A negligible difference.

Based on PitchFX, pitchers did not approach Holliday differently in terms of pitch selection. They just started pounding him down and away, and pitches in the bottom third of the zone are the hardest to lift in the air, hence the increase in ground ball rate. I love it when the puzzle pieces come together like that. It’s possible there is some small sample size noise in play here. The numbers are what they are though. Holliday did indeed see more pitches down and away.

Whether he sees that many pitches in that location next season, with the Yankees, is the next question, and it’s impossible to answer. This is a copycat league, and if Holliday has a hole down and away, pitchers are going to attack it. The thing is, Holliday is such a good natural hitter that he could make an adjustment. It’s not guaranteed to happen, but it’s possible. This guy isn’t a brute masher. He knows how to hit. After all, look at his spray chart, via Baseball Savant:

Matt Holliday spray chart

I can’t get enough of it. Power from foul pole to foul pole and base hits to all fields. All spray charts should look like that. You don’t spray the ball all around like Holliday without being a smart and adaptable hitter. After of a year of getting pounded with pitches down and away, Holliday might be better prepared to attack those pitches in 2016. The element of surprise is gone. At least that’s what I hope anyway.

Either way, the point stands. For Holliday to bounce back in pinstripes next season, he’ll have to hit the ball in the air more often than he did in 2016. That fact he was still hitting the ball hard is very good. The Yankees want him to continue doing that while improving his launch angle, so more of those 100+ mph batted balls fall in for hits. Whether he can make that adjustment at 37 years old remains to be seen. The fact Holliday has already acknowledged the ground ball problem is encouraging though, because he can begin to work on it right away.

Update: Yankees sign Matt Holliday to one-year deal

Beard's gotta go, Matt. (Jeff Curry/Getty)
Beard’s gotta go, Matt. (Jeff Curry/Getty)

Wednesday: The Yankees have officially announced the signing, so Holliday passed his physical and all that. He can block a trade to one team, according to Chris Cotillo: the Athletics. I guess Holliday didn’t enjoy his time with the A’s a few years ago, huh? Anyway, the 40-man roster is now full, which means the Yankees won’t be making a pick in tomorrow’s Rule 5 Draft, not that they were expected to make a pick anyway.

“The opportunity to play for such a historic franchise and such an amazing organization was really appealing,” said Holliday to Erik Boland and Pete Caldera. “I was excited about the opportunity to be a Yankee. I think this team has got a chance to be very competitive … It’s a talented young group of players that played amazing baseball the last two months when everybody kind of counted them out.”

Sunday: The Yankees have their veteran designated hitter. According to Ken Rosenthal, the Yankees have agreed to a one-year contract worth $13M with free agent outfielder Matt Holliday. The team hasn’t announced the move, which usually means it’s pending a physical. That’ll come soon enough.

Reports indicate the Yankees wanted Carlos Beltran back at DH, but he signed a one-year deal with the Astros over the weekend. Holliday, while not a switch-hitter, is similar to Beltran in that he’s a veteran bat with a history of hitting for power and maintaining relatively low strikeout rates. He also has a strong reputation as a clubhouse guy, which is cool because the Yankees have a lot of young players who need mentorin’.

Holliday, 37 in January, hit .246/.322/.461 (109 wRC+) with 20 home runs in 110 games around a broken thumb this past season. The thumb was broken by an errant pitch in August. Holliday was supposed to miss the rest of the season, but the Cardinals activated him for the final homestand so he could say goodbye to the St. Louis fans, and he managed to hit an opposite field homer with a broken thumb:

Holliday has spent almost his entire career as a left fielder, but he’s a brutal defender these days, so much so that the Yankees should only use him out there in an emergency. They have enough outfield depth — even if Brett Gardner is traded — to avoid using Holliday in left, I think. He does have some first base experience, but not much. Holliday should be a DH and a DH only. Plain and simple.

Believe it or not, this is only the Yankees second Major League free agent signing since re-signing Stephen Drew in January 2015. The other signing? Tommy Layne in August. The Yankees infamously sat out free agency entirely last offseason. My guess is they’re not done spending this winter, with smaller deals like this continuing to be the focus. We’ll see what happens.

Now that the Yankees have their DH, they figure to focus on pitching at the Winter Meetings this year. Pitching, pitching, and more pitching. Starters and relievers. All of it. They’ve been connected to the top free agent closers so often this winter that it’ll feel like an upset if they don’t land one of them. The rotation? That’ll take a little more creativity. The free agent class stinks.

Hot Stove Notes: Cecil, Cespedes, Napoli, Holliday, Moss

Cecil. (Elsa/Getty)
Cecil. (Elsa/Getty)

One week from today the 2016 Winter Meetings will begin at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center outside Washington, DC. Will MLB and the MLBPA agree to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement before then? I sure hope so. The current CBA expires Thursday. If they don’t hammer out a deal, the baseball world could come to a standstill. Anyway, here are some miscellaneous bits of hot stove news.

Yankees had interest in Cecil

According to Joel Sherman, the Yankees were in on lefty reliever Brett Cecil before he signed with the Cardinals last week. St. Louis gave him a four-year deal worth $30.5M. Goodness. Sherman says the Yankees never did make Cecil a formal offer, though they did talk parameters with his representatives. What they player wanted, what the team was willing to do … that sort of that stuff.

Cecil, 30, had a 3.93 ERA (3.64 FIP) in 36.2 total innings around a lat injury this past season. He had stellar strikeout (28.7%) and walk (5.1%) rates, though lefties managed a .254/.310/.364 batting line against him. You’d like your primary southpaw reliever to do a little better than that against same-side hitters. Although the Yankees didn’t present Cecil with an offer, their interest shows how seriously they’re looking for bullpen help. It’s not just to the top guys like Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. They’re zeroing in on the second tier free agents too.

Cespedes not in Yankees’ plans

The Yankees are not planning to pursue Yoenis Cespedes even though they have checked in with his representatives, reports Christian Red. Cespedes is arguably the best overall free agent on the market and he figures to land a hefty contract. The Yankees checked in just because they check in with everyone. It’s due diligence. How else are you going to find out whether a free agent is interested enough in your team to take a discount?

Cespedes, 31, hit .280/.354/.530 (134 wRC+) with 31 home runs for the crosstown Mets in 2016. The Yankees, who were one of the worst offensive teams in baseball this summer, could certainly use a bat like that in their lineup. They’re also trying to get under the luxury tax threshold at some point soon, plus they have a ton of talented outfield prospects in the upper minors, so a pricey corner outfielder is not a pressing need. It’s worth making the call to check in. Spending huge on Cespedes doesn’t seem wise at this point in time though.

Yankees have checked in with several bats

In addition to the usual cast of characters (Cespedes, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, etc.), the Yankees have also checked in on other free agent bats like Mike Napoli, Brandon Moss, Matt Holliday, and Dexter Fowler, reports Jon Heyman. Napoli, Moss, and Holliday are all short-term DH candidates — or at least they should be — while Fowler figures to be more of a long-term addition.

With Brian McCann gone, the Yankees suddenly have an opening at DH for a big veteran bat. They’re said to be interested in a reunion with Carlos Beltran. If the Yankees are going to spend on a free agent bat, I would greatly prefer a short-term contract. Short-term as in one year. Napoli, Beltran, Holliday, and Moss make more sense for the Yankees right now than Cespedes or Encarnacion. Remember, the Yankees are still paying Alex Rodriguez. I’m not sure how eager they are to commit big money to another DH at the moment.

How many wins would Matt Holliday add in 2010?

The Yankees’ only lineup weakness exists in left field. Matt Holliday, an All-Star left fielder, remains on the market, mostly because no team has met his current contract demands. It seems the two match up perfectly, yet the Yankees have stated that they will not sign Holliday. Since the team made their budget the theme of the off-season, we can see clearly that in no way could Holliday fit into any budget of around $200 million. But are the Yankees really going to let money get in the way of a perfect match?

Maybe the match isn’t so perfect after all. Dave Cameron at FanGraphs discussed the topic from the lens of marginal value added. Maybe, he argues, the Yankees will stay away from Holliday not because he’s too expensive, but because his salary would not justify the improvement his addition would bring to the Yankees. After all, as Cameron explains, the Yankees are already a near-100-win team on paper. So, when considering Holliday (or the recently signed Jason Bay), the Yankees need to wonder exactly how much they benefit the team.

They are at the other end of the win curve, and it doesn’t make much sense to spend a lot of money there either. The marginal value of the 101st, 102nd, and 103rd win in terms of playoff odds is really quite small. And that’s approximately the upgrade that Holliday would represent over the current production that Gardner offers in left field.

Cameron’s analysis falls short in two areas. First, the strength of the team once it does make the playoffs. The Yankees might win 100 games with or without Holliday, but once the playoffs roll around they need all the ammunition they can muster. Holliday’s value inflates in that situation. Second, it doesn’t take into account future considerations. Maybe Holliday’s marginal value on the Yankees doesn’t project to much for the 2010 season, but that could significantly increase in future years as the roster changes.

Still, I’m sure the marginal value factor plays a large part in the Yankees’ decision making process. If they really do covet the 2010-2011 free agent class, then perhaps they’ll find an even better left field fit in that market. In that case they can avoid signing Holliday this season and a player who provides more marginal value for their 2011 team. It means they’d get more for their money, which, as we’ve discussed many times, is the business ideal.

What does Nick Johnson mean for the left field situation?

Three Yankees who made significant contributions to the 2009 championship filed for free agency this winter: Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, and Andy Pettitte. By December 18, they’ve essentially replaced all three. Andy Pettitte re-signed last week to fill his own spot. The Yankees traded for Curtis Granderson to replace Damon, and the soon-to-be-announced signing of Nick Johnson fills Matsui’s vacated DH spot. The replacements are not exact facsimiles of their 2009 counterparts, but then again, no one is.

One question many of us had upon hearing of the Yanks interest in Johnson: what does it mean for left field? Melky Cabrera isn’t the worst choice. He was, after all, the starting center fielder on the 2009 team. The problems arise when Jorge Posada needs a day off. That means both Melky and Francisco Cervelli in the lineup. In a normal backup catcher situation that’s not a huge deal, but because we can’t expect Posada to catch more than 120 games (and even that’s very optimistic), it means a lot of both in the lineup.

Had the Yankees re-signed Damon, they could have mitigated the situation for some games. Instead of resting Posada a full day, sometimes he could have played DH, with Damon playing left field. Say Posada catches 110 games this season. Under the current system, the Yankees will have both Melky and Cervelli in the lineup for 52 games, or 32 percent of the season. But, if Posada can DH for 30 more games, for a total of 140, then the Yankees would only have both Melky and Cervelli in the lineup for 22 games. That sounds a lot better.

With Johnson in the fold, that’s not possible. It has made me, and many others, wonder if the Yankees now plan to sign or trade for a full-time left fielder. Though the chances appear remote, the Yankees could still sign Damon, though they’d have to play him in left basically every day. Do they still see him as a full-time left fielder? If not, it creates a logjam at DH, though those usually find a way to become unjammed. In fact, Damon might be the only possibility for another offensive addition. The left field trade market appears bleak, and there aren’t many, if any, free agent outfielders who interest the Yanks.

To not sign another left fielder, however, leaves the Yankees vulnerable. Nick Johnson comes with a long medical history, and is no guarantee to stay healthy the entire season. If something happens to him in 2010, the Yanks would be in a very tough spot. Without any further additions, they’d probably move Nick Swisher to DH and have an outfield of Cabrera, Granderson, and Brett Gardner. Defensively that’s stellar, but offensively it would be among the lightest hitting trios in the league. Further, imagine the lineup when Jorge needs a full day off. It’s not a scenario anyone wants to see.

Many Yanks fans, myself included, dream of Matt Holliday in this scenario. From a pure performance perspective, he represents an ideal fit. Not only does he play left field full time, but he provides a middle of the order bat. Just imagine the Yankees batting order:

1. Derek Jeter
2. Nick Johnson
3. Mark Teixeira
4. Alex Rodriguez
5. Matt Holliday
6. Jorge Posada
7. Curtis Granderson
8. Nick Swisher
9. Robinson Cano

The scenario, as of right now, remains unlikely. Without contracts for any of the arbitration-eligible and reserve clause players, the team payroll stands at about $188 million. Add in another $6 to $7 million for Melky, Chad Gaudin, and Sergio Mitre, plus the money to fill out the rest of the roster, and the number gets very close to $200 million. Will the Yankees go far above that for a left fielder? It doesn’t sound like it.

Holliday will not come cheap. As he does for all of his clients, Scott Boras seeks the most possible money for Holliday. The Cardinals reportedly have on the table a five-year offer for about $15 million per year. Even if the Yankees matched that and Holliday preferred New York, that would boost payroll to over $210 million, and close to $215 million. Imagine, then, if they wanted to add another starter. They could easily start the season with a payroll over $220 million. From everything the Yankees have said this off-season, that’s not part of the plan.

As we’ve mentioned many times before, adding Holliday doesn’t just affect this year’s payroll, but the payroll for the next five years. The Yankees might not want to add that kind of commitment when they already have $140 million committed to the 2011 team, and that’s before re-signing Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Cashman has also called next year’s free agency class “incredibly more impressive than this one,” so the Yanks might choose to wait this one out, add one more pitcher and call it an off-season. They can then make a move on perhaps a better free agent next off-season.

There’s a chance, as always, that the Yankees see the sense in adding Holliday at this point and decide to increase payroll for him. At yesterday’s Granderson press conference, Hal Steinbrenner seemed open to the idea, but reluctant. “I’m not saying yay (sic) or nay, but I’m saying we’re operating at this number and that’s that.” The chance is open, but given the immense commitment it would require, I doubt the Yankees move in that direction.

If they’re done shopping for an outfielder, the 2010 Yankees enter the season with a big risk. If healthy Nick Johnson is a great addition, but any injury would leave the Yankees offense in a tough spot. Even if they add another good starting pitcher, that’s a rough bottom of the order. I’d like to see them add a higher caliber left fielder, but given the roster and payroll constraints, I don’t expect it.