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Yankees defensive sieve Miguel Andújar deserves more

Do the Yankees have a valuable player in their 25-year-old former Rookie of the Year runner-up?

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Miguel Andújar has fallen off a cliff since his rookie season in 2018. As he’s struggled to replicate the offensive tallies of his breakout year, his defensive issues have grown more glaring, and he’s been unable to secure a regular role in the Yankees lineup. Andújar spent the first half of the 2020 season splitting time between the big leagues and the alternate training site at Scranton. When he did play, he struggled to make contact with the baseball on offense and defense, recording four hits through his first 32 at-bats, and posting fielding percentages equal to or below .800 at both third base and left field. The only slot in the lineup where Andújar didn’t make an error this season was as a designated hitter.

Despite his defensive shortcomings all season long, his second half at the plate showed signs for optimism, that at just 25 years old, Andújar has the ability to recoup his value on the trade market or grow into a starting option for the Yankees. In the midst of a nightmare August when Andújar triple-slashed .115/.148/.115 across 27 plate appearances, I detailed the mechanical causes for his struggles at the plate as well as on defense. Though the defense remained catastrophically bad, Andújar’s offense quietly surged, providing proof that he was still capable of achieving 2018’s production at the plate. In 31 September at-bats, he hit .355/.394/.581, the best rates of any month in his entire career. Though he didn’t appear to make any considerable adjustments at the plate, it did seem as though Andújar’s production steadied simply from his growing comfortability in the batter’s box.

Despite Andújar’s statistical improvements, his old-fashioned, pull-happy approach raises his floor, but hard-caps his ceiling as a hitter. The key to his success, it seems, is all in his rhythm. Andujar essentially hits at one-speed: expecting fastballs. When he’s late to fastballs, everything else gets thrown out of whack. He’s no longer able to protect the zone on everyday strikes, and feels pressure to chase off-speed pitches. When he’s on top of fastballs, and he finds one over the middle or inner parts of the plate, he regularly drives them with authority to the pull side.

Here he is bombing a Hyun-jin Ryu cutter to left-center for his lone home run of the season:

Andújar is early for Ryu’s slower-than-average cut-fastball over the middle, playing directly into his strength as a hitter. By breaking towards his body, the lefty cutter speeds Andújar’s rhythm up, rewarding him for selling out to pull. Andújar effectively cuts off his ability to drive the ball with force on the outer half of the plate, only batting one ball to right field with greater than an 86 mph exit velocity all season. When he clears his hips aggressively and thoroughly, he can no longer stay through an outside pitch, but is afforded more time and space to drive those in the inner-half, like this Ryu cutter.

His success against left-handed breaking pitches highlights the boons and costs of his swing-path. On the season, Andújar batted .667 against lefties’ breakers, despite an xwOBA of just .314. When a lefty would attempt to “back-foot” Andújar, he’d be early enough to catch the ball ahead of its full break, blasting a grounder through the 5.5 hole for a single, explaining the huge disparity between his achieved and expected statistics.

Andújar is very early on this attempted strikeout pitch, but because it’s breaking towards him, he is able to stay on it longer than if it were breaking away from him, as he smoked this ball nearly 107 mph.

Alternatively, Andújar’s incompetence against anything that breaks away from him is exacerbated by his aforementioned approach. Against lefty changeups, a pitch that breaks away from him, he was generally terrible, going one for eight in at bats against lefties concluding in a changeup, with his only hit being a weakly struck line drive to left.

Against 24 righty sliders in 2020, the right-handed pitch with the greatest lateral movement away from Andújar, he swung just six times, indicative of his overall discomfort with the pitch. And for good reason, when he did, his swings resulted in two groundouts, a popup, and three whiffs. Right now, Andújar can be highly effective in certain spots, especially when the matchup plays to his advantage—namely a left-handed pitcher who relies on a breaking pitch with significant horizontal movement.

Even in this past postseason, Andújar would have been a more valuable bat off the bench than Mike Ford, who made the roster over him. Though Ford right now has arguably more defensive value as a passable replacement over at first base compared to Andújar’s considerable struggles at any defensive spot, the gulf between them offensively is more than enough to justify Miggy over Ford. In Ford’s two postseason at bats, he looked ill-equipped for the moment in both occasions, striking out and popping out. With Tyler Wade’s positional flexibility as a defensive replacement, Andújar is light years ahead of anybody else the Yankees could have brought off the bench, especially in the right moment.

In 2021, with Gio Urshela manning the hot corner for the foreseeable future, it’d behoove the Yankees to start Andújar at third or DH against lefties when possible in order to give him the best opportunity to recoup some of his value. If possible, they’d be best off trading him for prospects, picks, or pitching to a younger team with a hole at third, a longer development timeline, and the willingness to endure some bumps on the road to ironing out Andújar’s defensive foibles.