Early in the 2017 season, walks have become an understated strength of the Yankee offense. Among 30 Major League teams, the Yankees are currently 3rd in total number of walks drawn and 2nd in walk percentage. Carlos Martinez’s 8-walk performance on Saturday certainly boosted the team’s overall performance in these statistics, but even before the Martinez start, the Yankees had drawn the 6th most walks in the league. The performance in these statistics comes as somewhat of a surprise for a couple of reasons. The first because the team finished so poorly in these statistical categories last year. In 2016, the Yankees finished in the bottom half of the league in both of these categories, 18th out of 30 to be exact. Second, the team lost Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira, two of the team’s leading players in BB%. So, what changed for the 2017 Yankees?
The Yankees are losing a good chunk of their team walks from their catcher and first base positions. Together, McCann and Tex accounted for 101 walks last season. McCann put up the best walk rates of his Yankee career in 2016, while Teixeira slightly-underperformed. Their absence is significant, but the presence of Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird will hopefully make up for much of that lost production. Now that Sanchez is injured for the next few weeks, it might make it difficult for him to match McCann’s 2016 production. However, both their career walk rates both hover around 10%, so Sanchez ought to at least get close to matching McCann’s base-on-balls percentage.
Bird, on the other hand,
can’t seem to actually make contact with a ball, but he’s is pretty good at watching them. Bird’s major league plate appearances represent an extremely small sample size, but his career minor league numbers suggest that his 11.1% BB rate in the majors is certainly within the realm of possibility. Together, Bird and Sanchez probably won’t match the total production lost from 2016, but new faces and a generally stronger supporting cast could easily make up for the remaining gap in production and then some.
Newly-signed Matt Holliday is currently leading the team in walks. Holliday has taken 10 walks in 43 plate appearances. This puts his walk rate at an ungodly 23.3%, more than double his career rate of 10%. His numbers will eventually come back down to earth and closer to his career averages. However, even if he immediately begins taking walks at a more reasonable 10% clip, his hot start to the year puts him on pace to record 50+ walks over 450 plate appearances.
Chris Carter also looks like he’ll contribute to improving the team’s overall base on balls percentage. ZiPS projects Chris Carter to be near the top of the team in walks this season, and while his 2017 BB% is lower than his career average, his presence in the lineup as a true-outcome hitter ought to help the teams overall walk rate. Carter will likely need to maximize his home runs for his contribution to be truly significant. However, the combination of Holliday and Carter, supplemented with the presence of Sanchez and Bird, should help the team surpass the production levels from last season.
Further, increased production in right field will likely contribute to a greater team BB% this season. Carlos Beltran did not take walks during his time in the Bronx. Last year, he walked 22 times in over 350 plate appearances, so his absence, in this regard, will not be missed nearly as much as McCann’s or Tex’s. Sticking the more patient Aaron Judge in right for the year will allow the Yankees to easily pass Beltran’s 2016 numbers. Aaron Hicks’ solid start to this season only solidifies this idea. He’s drawn 7 walks in 26 plate appearances so far. In 2016, he walked at a below-career-average rate, drawing 30 BB in 361 PA. Like Holliday, Hicks’ hot start to 2017 is giving him a head start on his personal ZiPS projections and the team-wide offensive statistics.
Of course, at least part of the reason for the inflated numbers is that it’s still April, so the sample size is going to be small. If history tells us anything (it does), then the team’s current 11.8% walk rate is simply unsustainable over the course of an entire season. Last year, the Cubs led the league with a 10.4% rate, and the Dodgers were tops in 2015 with 9.2%. Therefore, the Yankees are unlikely to maintain this rate over the course of the season, but that does not meant that the team won’t see marked improvement in walk rates during the 2017 season. The addition of more patient hitters and players performing at or above their career walk percentages in April has given the team an early boost, which, barring significant injuries, could very easily mean the 2017 Yankees outperform the 2016 team.
Fun fact: As of the writing of this article, Ronald Torreyes is the only Yankee regular to not record a walk in 2017, meaning the addition of Didi Gregorius and his career 5.8 career BB% might actually improve the team’s walk rates... I can’t believe I just wrote that.