By conventional logic, the Toronto Blue Jays should not have been good at baseball over the last couple of seasons. They put flyball pitchers like JA Happ and Marco Estrada in Rogers Centre, where both pitchers have thrived. They built their lineup around hitters like Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion, hitters who didn’t figure things out at the plate until their late 20’s.
What’s more, they have defied traditional hitting wisdom. In 2016, they had the fourth-highest Pull% in the league, with the fifth-highest flyball rate. If figures like that seem like a recipe for disaster against defensive shifts, it’s because they are. The Blue Jays had a .659 OPS against defensive shifts, tied for the fifth-worst in baseball. Still, their overall wRC+ was at 102, which had them tied for sixth in the MLB.
In a sense, the Blue Jays did exactly what they were not supposed to do. They drew shifts and hit right into them, even if it came at the expense of their batting averages. Even though they essentially became one three outcome hitter, it worked. Behind an explosive lineup and an unexpectedly dominant starting rotation, they won 89 games in a competitive AL East, beating the Baltimore Orioles (minus Zack Britton) in the AL Wild Card Game.
Beyond just having very good hitters on their team, the one thing that set them apart was their plate discipline. According to Pitch F/X, the Blue Jays swung at a collective 27.1% of pitches outside the strike zone, the lowest total in baseball. By being selective, they were able to turn on the right pitches when they saw them. On balls hit to the pull side, the Blue Jays had the highest flyball percentage in the league, with the fifth lowest groundball percentage. Because of shifts, grounders hit to the pull side are among the least productive balls in play.
As a team, the Yankees’ plate discipline was more towards the middle of the pack. Pitch F/X had them swinging at 30.3% of pitches outside the strike zone, the 16th highest figure in the league. They are also losing hitters like Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira, who were among the more selective hitters on the team.
They also have a lot of younger hitters who are still getting a feel for big league pitching. In conjunction, these factors spell out a need for the Yankees to be willing to hit to all fields in 2017. They may have a lot of upside in their lineup, but they are probably not be ready to be the Bronx Bombers of old, who could get by on home runs alone. In order to pick up what appears to be a shaky starting rotation, the Yankees will have to be willing to score the old-fashioned way, by taking extra bases and manufacturing runs. In a few years, the perennial 200 home run teams of the last might return to the Bronx. But for now, the Yankees will have to improvise.
Data is courtesy of FanGraphs.