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The Rays beat the Yankees at their own game

The Yankees’ hitters executed the perfect plan against Cleveland, and then promptly abandoned it in the next round.

American League Division Series Game 5: New York Yankees v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

When the Yankees swept the Indians in the Wild Card Series, it felt like the start of an unstoppable run to the Fall Classic. Their lineup, hamstrung by injuries to key contributors for much of the season, was finally healthy, fully intact, and clicking on all cylinders. They executed their game plan perfectly against Cleveland, humbling the presumptive AL Cy Young winner and delivering timely big blow after timely big blow.

Game One of the ALDS carried over the promise from the previous round, bolstering the belief that this could finally be the year. Just as they did against Shane Bieber, the Yankees stayed disciplined in the box against Blake Snell, punishing fastballs in the zone and spitting on break balls out of it. With this approach, the lineup looked capable of steamrolling any pitcher the Rays threw out at them.

Aaron Boone’s offensive mantra since he took over as manager is largely unchanged: he wants his hitters to control the zone and do damage when they get their pitch. Inexplicably, the Yankees’ hitters decided to ditch that plan starting in Game Two. Where the previous starters failed, Tyler Glasnow made mincemeat of the Bombers batting order, fanning ten in only five innings. Don’t get me wrong, his stuff was filthy, but the Yankees did him plenty of favors by expanding the zone. This trend carried through the rest of the series, such that when we look back, it appears the Rays beat the Yankees at their own game.

Common sense says that if you create more traffic on the bases while giving up fewer free outs, you’re going to put yourself in a better position to win. Therefore, a good place to begin our investigation into each team’s discipline is with raw strikeout and walk totals. “But Peter,” you might say, “the Rays struck out as many times in the series (49) as the Yankees, while drawing two fewer walks (19 to 21).” So, at the simplest level, one cannot draw a conclusion as to whether the Rays outclassed the Yankees in the plate discipline department.

However, taking a deeper dive into the underlying statistics, a rift between the two teams begins to emerge. Consider the “controlling the zone” aspect of plate discipline. I’d argue that the team who swings at fewer would-be balls exhibits better control of the zone.

According to Statcast, the Yankees actually did a much better job of this than the Rays. The Yankees’ hitters swung at about 24% of pitches thrown out of the zone while Rays hitters swung at about 31% of pitches thrown out of the zone. That means the Rays swung at almost 30% more balls than did the Yankees. Additionally, Yankees batters held an almost 100 point wOBA advantage (.324 vs. .237) over the Rays on balls out of the zone.

This would seem to suggest the Yankees displayed better plate discipline than the Rays, however this is only half the story. The next component of plate discipline I’d like to dissect is “doing damage when you get your pitch.” Just as important as laying off bad pitches is getting the barrel to the ball when the pitcher throws a mistake. Therefore, I compared how well each team’s lineup did against pitches thrown over the heart of the plate. This is where the gap between the two teams truly shined through.

The results are quite stark, and reveal just how much better the Rays were at punishing mistakes. According to Statcast, on balls thrown over the heart of the plate Yankees batters slugged .539 with a .345 wOBA and an average exit velocity of 91.8 mph. This pales in comparison to the Rays, who slugged .694 with a .409 wOBA and an average exit velocity of 96.9 mph on similar pitches.

This matches the eye test, as it seemed like every mistake the Yankees pitchers made got deposited into the seats, while the Yankees took more than a few pitches right down Broadway. Obviously this is a biased observation, as you tend to remember the failures more vividly than the successes, but the message is still the same.

In the end, while the Yankees may not have expanded the zone as much as their opponents, they did not do enough on hittable pitches to win the series. This analysis was incredibly revealing from my viewpoint, as it appears to favor the slugging component of plate discipline over the on-base component. The Yankees controlled the outside of the zone. The Rays controlled the inside of the zone and are now up two games to none in the ALCS.