Did you know that the Yankees set a new record in team homers in 2018, with 267? Oh, you did? Facetiousness aside, the Yankees’ team home run record has reached “Todd Frazier is from Tom’s River, New Jersey”-level in terms of oft-cited factoids. Granted, the former is more noteworthy, as the record reflects both the 2018 Yankees’ prowess with the long ball and the rise of the home run across all of baseball. Indeed, it’s not hard to envision the Yankees breaking their own record in 2019, provided that their big guns perform reasonably well and league-wide trends hold.
However, the primacy granted to the home run record is a bit peculiar in this day and age. It’s a basic tenet of baseball analysis that rate stats are generally more informative than counting stats. Home runs may be a quick and easy way to gauge a hitter’s power, but slugging percentage and isolated power are much more effective indices of power-hitting ability.
Let’s spice up the record talk a bit, then. What teams hold the record for highest slugging percentage and isolated power, respectively? And do this year’s Yankees have a realistic shot at breaking either record?
First, let’s start with isolated power. The current owner of the record is the 2010 Toronto Blue Jays, who collectively posted an impressive .206 ISO. Led by a breakout performance from Jose Bautista, who emerged from obscurity to wallop 54 home runs and post a .357 ISO, the team also featured Vernon Wells in his last year as a productive ballplayer (.242 ISO) and pre-breakout but still beefy Edwin Encarnacion (.238). Sure, the Jays weren’t playoff-relevant in 2010, but they had a bucketload of power, which was all they needed to top this list.
However, Toronto’s crown may soon switch owners. In the process of breaking the 1997 Mariners’ home run record, the 2018 Yankees came dangerously close to also eclipsing the Jays’ .206 ISO, finishing at .202. Keep in mind that they accomplished the feat with Aaron Judge sidelined for the majority of the second half, Gary Sanchez never at full power, and an underwhelming year from Giancarlo Stanton. If the trio can stay healthy and productive in 2019, we might see the Yankees post a team ISO in the .210s. The Bronx Bombers, indeed.
What of the record for team slugging percentage? That particular honor belongs to the 2003 Red Sox (yuck), who were a pretty great team until they were owned in the ALCS by a certain Yankees third baseman who I hear is a manager now. That year, the Sox hit .289/.360/.491, good for a team wRC+ of 120. Featuring prime Manny Ramirez (158 wRC+), David Ortiz’s first great year (145), and Bill Mueller (145) and Trot Nixon (152) randomly being great, the squad slugged its way to 95 wins and led MLB with 961 runs scored.
Suffice it to say that eclipsing the 2003 Sox’ .491 slugging percentage will be a much harder task for the Yankees than setting a new .ISO record. Unlike isolated power, which removes batting average from the equation, slugging percentage depends heavily upon it. The Yankees may be able to post an .ISO figure north of .200 without breaking a sweat, but even so they would need to hit .290 to approach Boston’s slugging record. As the Yankees’ current overall offensive approach - patience, power, and strikeouts - doesn’t lend itself well to posting high averages, the chances of such a thing happening are very slim.
If the Yankees are going to break the slugging percentage record, they’re going to have to double down on their strengths; drawing walks, and hitting the crap out of the ball. By earning free passes, the Yankees can deflate the number of at-bats they accrue. Because slugging percentage is calculated by dividing total bases by at-bats, this would be a way to raise their slugging without drastically raising their batting average.
Meanwhile, hitting the crap out of the ball not only leads to improved power output, but a better batting average as well. Here’s a chart by Daren Willman, showing how harder contact generally translates into higher batting averages on balls in play.
Several people asking about this stat and exit velocity... Here's the league breakdown. https://t.co/JPBMH1V1vZ pic.twitter.com/NRwa3UAQfz— Daren Willman (@darenw) October 24, 2015
This makes intuitive sense. Hard-hit balls tend to travel longer, faster, and thus are more difficult to field than their weakly-hit counterparts. Even if the Yankees don’t manage to cut down on their strikeouts - let’s face it, that isn’t going to happen overnight - by making sure that they consistently make hard contact, they can still post a respectable batting average, getting them closer to the Sox’ .491 SLG. It’s still a long shot, but you never know.
To sum things up, the Yankees have a good chance of setting a new record for team ISO, but not so much for team slugging percentage. However, there are ways that the Yankees can leverage their existing strengths to get closer to the 2003 Red Sox’ .491 slugging percentage. At any rate, what matters most is not that the Yankees break records, but that they just hit really well. In that sense, we can say that historic power is a given for the 2019 Yankees. The hope is that, in terms of overall offensive performance, they end up closer to the 2003 Red Sox than the 2010 Blue Jays. We’ll find out soon enough.