Over the past two years, the Yankees have produced two of the most powerful seasons in baseball history, breaking the single-season team home run record in 2018 (267), then bashing another 306 this season. Power has become a constant throughout the lineup, but with it has formed the narrative that the Yankees only depend on home runs. Yes, power plays a role, but it isn’t the only skill that fans should notice. Along with their proficiency for slugging, everyday players have shown that contact is part of their game as well.
Brett Gardner from time to time has been considered a pesky hitter, and the term is well earned. Over the last ten years, while comparing hitters with more than 5,000 plate appearances, Gardner places fifth right between Jose Altuve and Ben Zobrist in contact percentage. The longest-tenured Yankee has a knack for consistently being able to hit above the league-average contact rate, and does so with room to spare, consistently placing a rate above 80%.
To help put that into perspective, in 2019 Mike Tauchman and Gio Urshela hit for a contact rate of 80.4 and 79.6 respectively. Although those two rates are better than the 2019 league average of 76.2%, DJ LeMahieu and Brett Gardner soared above the rest of the Yankees, posting a contact rate of 85.5 and 82.6, respectively.
It’s no wonder why names like LeMahieu and Urshela were part of the “put the ball in play” conversation during this past season, because they simply have an above-average skill that allows them to do so. But what we have to acknowledge is that in 2019, both of these players weren’t projected to have the seasons they did, and it wasn’t just because of their bat-to-ball ability. LeMahieu and Urshela found a way to combine their contact prowess with pop to produce career seasons.
This isn’t something Yankees have recently picked up on, but their rate of success has increased regarding improving players with above average contact rates. The Bombers have helped Gardner add power to his production late in his career and have done so with numerous players added through trade.
Take Didi Gregorius for example. When he first joined the Bombers, he was a player hovering around league average in contact with little power to his swing. Since then, he has improved his contact rate and ISO power marks. Additionally, from 2015 through 2018, his wRC+ jumped by about 10 points each season. Starlin Castro might have fallen through the cracks but, Gregorius, Aaron Hicks, Urshela, and LeMahieu, prove their is a system helping execute this plan.
Many changes have occurred to the Yankees coaching staff, but one constant has been hitting coach Marcus Thames. He joined the coaching staff in 2016 and was promoted for the 2018 season. This is not to say Thames is the sole reason the Yankees have been able to take contact hitters and add power to their swing, but whether he likes it or not, the dual-skill is something appearing in more and more hitters each season.
Combined with LeMahieu and Urshela, young hitters on the Yankees who have an above-average contact rate are Miguel Andujar, Mike Ford. and Tauchman. We have all been able to see what they can do, with Andujar’s sample size much larger than the rest. Some, however, might be debating whether or not these players will be able to consistently produce at the level they did, and that includes newcomers LeMahieu and Urshela.
Compared to 2018, when Thames and assistant hitting coach P.J. Pilittere began the season with three everyday players who hit with a contact rate above league average, the Yankees will potentially have six of them entering next season. Therefore 2020 will test their abilities to continue their success of combining contact with power.
Each season the Yankees keep increasing the amount contact hitters they have on the active roster. With LeMahieu, Urshela, Tauchman, and Ford having implemented themselves into the starting mix, combined with the return of Andujar, contact might present itself more than people expect during the 2020 campaign.