Power trios are nothing new in sports. The Golden State Warriors have built a dynasty on Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. The Pittsburgh Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury. No one could ever forget the Big Three the Miami Heat constructed with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. Three is just a perfect number, and it’s no surprise that Big Threes can form immediate, attention-drawing narratives.
The 2018 Yankees created their own Big Three, trading for the reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton to join a heart of the order backed by Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez. The trio had combined for 19.9 fWAR and 144 home runs in 2017, and expectations were sky-high for their first year in the Bronx together.
The plan didn’t really work though, did it? Sanchez, of course, had a dreadful 2018; Stanton was good but not a world-beater, driven mostly by a spike in his strikeout rate; and Judge played like an MVP but missed seven weeks with a broken wrist. Those WAR and home run totals were almost exactly halved, to 10.3 fWAR and 73 dingers.
That’s nearly 10 wins fewer than 2017, per FanGraphs value metrics. Even if you think that Judge and Stanton slightly over-performed their true talent levels two years ago, you’re looking at about an easy half-dozen potential wins the team lost to injury and under-performance. It’s no wonder 2018 left a pretty bitter taste in the mouths of many fans.
Opening Day is right around the corner, and the heart of the Yankee lineup is still Judge-Stanton-Sanchez. I can’t help but feel like expectations have been tempered somewhat, right? Sanchez is under a pressure to return to form, but after last year I think we’d all take a 25-plus-homer, three-to-four WAR season, which is pretty much exactly what Steamer and ZiPS project for him.
Judge, meanwhile, is coming off what should have been an MVP-caliber season derailed by a wayward fastball. We all know what he’s capable of, but after a shoulder problem sapped much of his power in the second half of 2017 and a broken wrist sidelined him in 2018, I get the feeling Yankee fans just want to see Judge healthy all year.
As for Stanton, he really was great at times in his first year in pinstripes, but it’s no secret we all thought he’d be a bit better. His spike in swings and misses is concerning, but we know that there is an adjustment period for guys moving from the NL. At this point, I think most fans would be satisfied if Stanton ironed out his plate discipline issues and improved modestly on his Bronx debut. After all, the team has plenty of offense to go around.
In fact, FanGraphs’ projections are bullish on two of the Big Three rounding back into form:
Of those nine wins lost from 2017 to 2018, the Big Three are projected to recoup a third, and provide a whole lot more offensive output as well.
I think there’s a case to be made that Yankee fans are setting expectations too low for the heart of the order, which may be the first time anyone in history has said that about Yankee fans. What’s driving my own higher-than-usual expectations for Judge, Stanton and Sanchez? Like so much else, it starts with Statcast.
Simply put, Judge and Stanton make the best quality of contact in all of baseball, balancing maximum power potential with a high average that makes their balls in play more BABIP-resistant than just about any hitter in the game. Gary Sanchez, meanwhile, fits in the absolute elite group as well.
This is really important for projecting future performance, and I want to explain what I mean by BABIP-resistant. Defensive positioning and atom balls can be the bane of certain hitters, but when you consistently hit the ball as well as these three, it’s just that much harder to field.
The median average exit velocity in baseball is 88.2 mph. That’s 129 feet per second, which means it takes a little less than a second for a struck ball to travel 127.3 feet, or the distance from home to second base. Aaron Judge hits the ball an average of 94.7 mph, or 140 fps, so the ball takes that much less time to travel, say, the distance to second base - or the distance to the hole the shortstop is racing to cover.
The other element of contact is balancing your launch angle and hard hit rate. You want to see a prime power hitter’s launch angle fall between 10 and 15 degrees - too high and you’re lofting popups to second base, too low and you’re killing worms. And of course, you want to see as many hard hit balls as possible, which Statcast defines as 95 mph or more.
The Yankees’ Big Three are once again about as optimal as you can get:
Man, these three are so good.
The fact is all three guys are just about as perfect in their contact quality. They consistently hit the ball ridiculously hard and at angles that produce the best results. All that stands in the way of God Seasons from the Big Three is health and plate discipline. Let’s address the latter first.
I say plate discipline and not strikeouts because, when you produce as much power as these three, the raw strikeout totals are less important than the ratio of strikeouts to reaching base. Nobody should worry about Aaron Judge’s strikeouts as long as his OBP is over .400. When his OBP rate is at .350, we can start to worry.
As such, instead of looking at a trend of strikeouts, we should look at K-BB%, over the past three years since that’s how long Judge and Sanchez have been in the majors:
Contrary to what you may have thought, Gary’s overall discipline actually got better last year. He was the only one to lower his K-BB% in 2018, and that looks like the biggest obstacle to the Big Three in 2019.
It sounds rudimentary, but if you’re not striking out, you’re either walking or making contact. A walk is never a bad outcome, and we’ve already seen how good the contact these three produce is. As you cut down on swinging and missing, pitchers either have to be content to walk you or bring the ball into the strike zone, which isn’t something you want to do with guys like this.
In many ways that’s what drove Stanton’s 2017 MVP season. The home runs weren’t an outlier — he’s always had 80-grade power — but the discipline was. He cut down his strikeouts and raised his walk rate, forcing pitchers to move closer into the zone, where Stanton clobbered his 59 home runs.
That discipline dropped off last year, and so did the overall offensive performance. Same thing with Judge. He didn’t regress as hard as Stanton, and the K-BB% didn’t jump as high, but he went from a 180 wRC+ to a 150 mark, largely because he was chasing more and taking fewer balls. Maybe you can lay some of that at the feet of umpires, but that can’t be all of it.
Fortunately for Judge and Stanton, there are few teams that preach plate discipline like the Yankees do. Especially for Stanton, I don’t think it would be outside the realm of possibility to see him regress positively, and in fact FanGraphs’ depth charts are projecting exactly that, a drop of 2% in K-BB%, which drives his expected wRC+ improvement.
Then there’s the great unknown: injury. It came for all three hitters last year - Judge’s broken wrist, Sanchez’s groin, and shoulder which required offseason surgery, and Stanton’s hamstring problems in August. There’s nothing we can do on that front except hope that Aaron Boone can manage requisite amounts of rest and that players are up front about injury troubles.
With proper rest and a bit of luck, we can be optimistic that we’ll see full seasons from each of the Big Three. With some positive regression inbound and their own nearly-unbelievable ceilings, the core of Judge-Stanton-Sanchez could carry the team all by itself. That’s something worth getting excited about in 2019.