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Should the Yankees be more aggressive early in the count?

The team takes a lot of pitches, and that helps their on-base percentage. Can they take too many, though?

Wild Card Game - Oakland Athletics v New York Yankees Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

What’s the balance between being patient and giving up strikes? It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately when it comes to the Yankees. They were second in baseball last year in walk rate and top ten in overall on-base percentage. Clearly, this is a disciplined team that understands how to work the count.

This can also be a detriment, depending on what pitches a player is taking. Working a walk is always a positive outcome, but if along the way a batter passed up a chance at a more positive outcome, well that’s an opportunity cost he can’t recoup.

As one would expect, there exists a negative relationship between how many pitches a team sees and how likely they are to swing at the first pitch. In this plot of the 30 MLB teams, the Yankees are pretty clearly on the extremes in terms of pitches seen, and fall below the median - 28.8% - of first pitch swings.

Perhaps nobody in the lineup demonstrates this approach better than the team’s best player, Aaron Judge. Here’s the pitches he sees at the beginning of an at-bat:

Pitchers tend to come right at Judge with their first pitch. He sees a fair number of pitches right in the wheelhouse, and when he does make contact with offerings in that location, he does hilarious amounts of damage:

So, Judge sees a lot of first pitches out over the plate, and when he hits pitches out over the plate, they go far. The possible issue is, he doesn’t swing at those first pitch meatballs all that often:

Go back to that first heatmap and compare how likely Judge is to see pitches right over the plate against how likely he is to swing at those very same pitches on 0-0. It’s hard to find any flaws in Judge’s game, but you could make an argument that he’s leaving potential runs on the table by passing on pitches tailor-made for him to crush.

It’s one thing to say that about Judge, legitimately one of the ten or so best baseball players in the world. Tweaking his approach at the plate might net the team a few runs here or there, but probably nothing extraordinary. It’s quite another to point out other players on the team who have the same approach as Judge and yet were much less successful in 2018 with it:

Gary Sanchez doesn’t see quite as optimal a first-pitch offering, but he also swings at the first pitch even less than Judge:

Sanchez is more likely to end up behind 0-1 than most players, and I think that constant pressure of being behind in the count, coupled with everything else that went wrong for him in 2018, made it that much more difficult for him to be productive. If Judge, in the middle of a 150 wRC+ season, goes down 0-1, it’s probably much easier for him to relax and focus than for Sanchez.

I don’t know what the actual breakeven point between being patient and being passive is. There’s no real way to tell whether Judge or Sanchez, or Brett Gardner, or Giancarlo Stanton, would actually be noticeably better if they were more aggressive on the first pitch. Such a dramatic difference in their approach might throw off the rest of their game.

It’s sort of the other side of the Didi Gregorius/Miguel Andujar talk. Both players are outliers on the team, being far more aggressive on the first pitch. Just look at Andujar for a second:

One of the real criticisms of Andujar’s game is that he doesn’t walk very much, but a legitimate counter to that would be that his aggressiveness is what’s driven his success in MLB so far. If Andujar’s first pitch swing percentage looked more like Sanchez or Judge’s, you could make a very real case that he wouldn’t be as good overall. Such a drastic change in a player’s gameplan doesn’t always bring forth success.

Still, one has to wonder about the potential runs lost when Judge, Sanchez and the like take those first pitch fastballs right over the plate. We don’t get PitchFX data for spring training, unfortunately, but exhibition games would be a perfect time to see if the bulk of Yankees hitters would do better to go after the initial offering.