Perhaps the single biggest difference between the 2015 Yankees and the 2016 team has been the play of Mark Teixeira. In 2015, Teixeira was an All Star, and the team’s best all-around position player, hitting for a .906 OPS (146 OPS+) while playing a stellar first base.
2016 has been a completely different story for Teixeira. He has struggled to stay healthy, appearing in 65 of the team’s 95 games, and has been abysmal at the plate. Over 259 plate appearances Teixeira has an OPS of .581 (56 OPS+), and has managed just 14 extra-base hits on the season.
Since May Teixeira has struggled with neck spasms, and in June he missed three weeks with an articular cartilage tear in his right knee. Teixeira has stated that if his knee “locks up” again he will elect to have surgery, which will in all likelihood end his season, and quite possibly his career as a Yankee.
A dive into the numbers suggests that these injuries have taken a toll on Teixeira and his bat speed. An initial indication of this is that according to MLB Statcast, the average exit velocity on balls put in play by Teixeira has declined from 90.2 mph in 2015 to 87.8 mph in 2016.
A second indicator pointing to diminished bat speed is a decline in Teixeira’s ability to turn around fourseam fastballs, and put them in the air where he can do the most damage. In 2015, according to Brooks Baseball, 26% of fastballs put in play by Teixeira were hit for line drives, while 29% were fly balls. Of those fly balls and line drives, just over 18% resulted in a home run. In 2016, 24% of fastballs put in play by Teixeira have resulted in a line drive, 25% ended up as fly balls, and just over 12% of his fly balls and line drives against fastballs culminated in a trip around the bases. So, in 2016, Teixeira is putting fewer fastballs in the air, and of those he has put in the air, fewer are leaving the ballpark for home runs.
A third and final indicator provides evidence that Teixeira is trying to cheat on fastballs, and in turn making himself vulnerable to off-speed offerings. In 2015, 22% of the changeups Teixeira faced resulted in line drives, while a further 32% resulted in fly balls, with just over 18% of those line drives and fly balls ending up as home runs. In 2016, 16% of changeups faced by Teixeira have wound up as line drives, 21% as fly balls, and Teixeira has yet to hit a home run off of a changeup this season. In addition, for every changeup that Teixeira hits in the air, 2.5 end up as a ground ball. This is a significant increase from 2015 when Teixeira averaged 1.4 ground balls for every fly ball that he hit against a changeup.
Taken together these peripherals indicate that Teixeira has lost bat speed, is having a more difficult time turning around fastballs, and as a result is trying to compensate by starting his swing earlier, which makes him vulnerable to changeups. While Teixeira has always been a streaky hitter, and you can never completely count out a player with his track record, the numbers tell a story that Teixeira’s injuries have caught up to him.
In the short-run he may be able to make an adjustment and see some improvement, but ultimately a slower bat is a very difficult hurdle to overcome for a power hitter like Teixeira. These patterns hold true for Teixeira from both sides of the plate, with the decline being even more dramatic for him from the right side. This will not make finding a solution easier as Teixeira is forced to tweak both of his swings in search of an answer.
In what is probably his final season as a Yankee, I am rooting for Tex to turn things around and provide one last glimpse of the hitter that is capable of carrying his team for two to three weeks at a time. However, that final run may ultimately elude him if his health does not cooperate.