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The Yankees’ pitching staff has prioritized strikeouts

If there is a weakness on the team, it’s infield defense, but 15 K’s a game takes care of that

League Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Three Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

A week ago I wrote about a potential liability for the 2020 Yankees, their infield defense. If we assume that the starting infield, from left to right, is Gio Urshela, Gleyber Torres, DJ LeMahieu and Luke Voit, based on 2019 fielding data there’s only one clearly above-average fielder in the bunch. As we say so often though, a run scored is the same as a run prevented, and the weakest hitter of those four was the 125 wRC+ Gleyber Torres, and when the worst hitter in a set is 25% better than league average, you live with slightly underwhelming defense.

But there is another way the Yankees can work around lesser infield defense, and it’s by suppressing balls in play entirely. The team boasts Gerrit Cole and Luis Severino atop their rotation, two guys that can be penciled in for 200 K’s if they’re healthy. Their third starter, James Paxton, is 14th in baseball in strikeout rate since 2016, ahead of luminaries like Corey Kluber and Blake Snell. And of course, just for kicks, the bullpen’s ranking across all MLB in strikeout rate from 2015-2019? First, second, first, first, third. The staff knows how to miss bats.

Baseball is a game of randomness - Bill Buckner lets a ground ball between his legs, Howie Kendrick hits an impossible Will Harris pitch for a home run. In a 162 game season, weird things happen, and a huge part of an organization’s job is to reduce what I call the “wtf” risk, which is the risk that random deviations from expectation affect how your team finishes the season. On offense, you can reduce the “wtf” risk by emphasizing plate discipline and power, and not relying on batted ball “luck” to generate runs. Off the field, you reduce “wtf” risk by having an advanced medical program, preventing small injuries and boosting recovery from bigger ones.

Strikeouts from your staff reduce your “wtf” risk because you’re not relying on all of the moving parts involved in a fielder, or two or three, recording an out. The pitcher gets three strikes, done, easy. Indeed, the strikeout rate around baseball has made defense overall less valuable, and the Yankees are following that trend.

The Yankees are projected to have the second-largest jump in K/9 rate between 2019 and 2020, behind only the Rays. Of course, projections are just that, projections, but every marginal increase in strikeouts is a marginal decrease in that “wtf” risk.

There are two basic ways to mitigate a poor infield defense. The first, as above, is to chock the defense full of great hitters, and the Yankees have done that. The second is to just strike out every single opposing batter, and the Yankees are at least trying to do that, and it takes a lot of pressure off what might be the team’s only weakness. Considering the amount of weapons each of the top pitchers on the staff is equipped with, they should find a lot of success in doing so.