Shortly before the start of the 2018 season, ESPN published a feature on the Yankees’ player development juggernaut. In a moment of unusual transparency, Tim Naehrig, the team’s Vice President for Baseball Operations, opened up on the state of the team’s minor league pipeline. “When I started going through the system a few years ago,” he explained, “I was impressed with the numbers of players who had a chance to make a significant impact at the major league level.”
In a nearly unprecedented string of good fortune, most of these players panned out for the Yankees — and in a big way. Gary Sanchez went on a Ruthian tear down the stretch in 2016. Aaron Judge crushed 52 home runs during his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2017. Then the excitement doubled in 2018, as the Yankees saw both Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres break into the show.
The pair had seasons for the ages, with both named finalists for Rookie of the Year honors. Despite their impressive campaigns, however, some fans found reasons to complain. Contrived narratives popped up suggesting that the two picked up bad habits at the big league level, selling out for power instead of maintaining a balanced approach at the plate. While we’ve done our best to clear up that misinformed line of thinking throughout the season, an exhaustive refutation of this narrative is now necessary.
The argument that they sold out for power is predicated upon the assumption that the two performed worse as the summer progressed. It assumes they performed well during their first taste of the big leagues, then changed and saw their results decline. A quick glance at their monthly wRC+ totals vis-a-vis strikeout rates shows that didn’t happen.
This narrative falls apart when one examines Andujar’s chart. The rookie third baseman had the occasional slump, but for the most part he performed at a consistently high level. Most impressive is how he cut down his strikeout rate over the course of the season. After the first two months of his big league tenure, he became a nightmare for opposing pitchers
Torres, meanwhile, ran a pretty high strikeout rate all season long. It hovered consistently around the 25% mark. This proved the case whether the second baseman slumped or thrived at the plate. Given how his season played out, the high strikeout rate appeared inconsequential.
It also bears mentioning that Torres had abbreviated playing time in April and July. He made his major league debut on April 22nd, limiting him to nine games on the month. He also spent a few weeks on the disabled in July with hip issues. The sample sizes for those two months are regrettably smaller than one would like.
A results-based analysis, however, only paints part of the picture. In order to see if the two tried to hit more home runs, one has to study their approach at the plate. Did they try to swing for the fences as the summer went on? Or did they stick to one plan all season long? A close look at their monthly average launch angles should shed light on that.
Andujar made for an interesting case, as his launch angle fluctuated on a near-monthly basis. He had some consistency during the summer months, but then took off in September. If he made a decision to swing for the fences, it certainly didn’t hurt. He crushed four homers on the month and ran his lowest strikeout total.
Torres, meanwhile, represented the model of consistency. He made no dramatic changes to his swing over the course of the year. The 21-year-old took a general approach to the plate and let that play out all season long.
This consistency goes a long way towards dispelling the notion that Torres tried to hit more home runs as the season unfolded. Nothing in his swing suggests that. Even Andujar, who had a more fluctuating launch angle profile, saw no downturn in his results. If anything, the decision worked for him.
These findings should help discredit the idea that the two sold out for power. Our work here, however, isn’t done. Another similar, but distinct, misconception needs correcting.
Somehow word spread that neither Torres and Andujar hit for much power at the minor league level. Fans incorrectly presume that the two infielders carried an old-school approach before reaching the show, where the big league experience corrupted them into home run only ballplayers.
This notion ignores the consensus scouting evaluations on the two from their prospect days. Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel were somewhat conservative in their power assignments, but gave them glowing marks overall. MLB Pipeline proved more optimistic, grading both Torres and Andujar out at 55 power on the 20-80 scale.
Consider their scouting report on Torres following the 2017 season:
Torres has exceptionally quick hands that allow him to excel at the dish and in the field. He’s very advanced at the plate, recognizing pitches well, displaying patience and using the entire field. His power projections seem to increase each year as he adds strength and experience, and he now looks like he’ll deliver 20-plus homers on an annual basis in his prime.
The MLB.com evaluators also thought highly of Andujar in the power department and raved about his strength in their writeup:
Andujar has a quick right-handed bat that generates impressive raw power, though interestingly most of his pop currently comes against righties. He makes repeated hard contact, though his aggressive approach sometimes leads to him getting himself out on pitches he’d be better off avoiding. He has the upside of a .270 hitter capable of 20 homers on an annual basis.
Keith Law represented the low voice on Torres’ power, pegging him for “probably just 10-15 homers a year.” Combine this quote with his 24 total home runs in the minor leagues and maybe that explains where fans got the notion that Torres isn’t a power hitter. These factors fail to outweigh the general agreement that the two had impressive raw power, with plenty of in-game pop, too.
Did they hit more home runs than expected in their rookie season? Sure, but that’s not exactly uncommon these days. The increased home run totals may have nothing to do with a change in approach. The difference could stem from the composition of the ball itself. David Laurila explained how the balls used in MiLB have a different makeup than their MLB counterparts in a 2017 FanGraphs article.
“I think the ball goes further — it flies better — in the big leagues,” former Yankees pitcher and current Padres reliever Kirby Yates told Laurila. “I’ve hung stuff in Triple-A where guys have put on a good swing and it was an out, whereas in the big leagues it was probably a home run. That could be the hitters, too — I’m not 100% sure — but it does seem like it flies more. Regardless of the reason, the balls here are definitely different.”
In short, Torres and Andujar didn’t sell out for power. They hit a lot of homers because they’re talented players. The available data suggests they didn’t make any dramatic adjustments in an attempt to chase home runs. The two always had a good deal of power, as noted in their scouting reports, and they probably benefited by a baseball that has a bit of carry to it.
The Yankees struck gold by playing a pair of infielders who hit as well as Andujar and Torres. Other teams dream of that type of production. Suggesting that the two became one-dimensional batters flies in the face of factual evidence and undersells their contributions.