If you give a mouse a cookie, he’s going to want a glass of milk. If you give Hal Steinbrenner a microphone, he’s going to say something that makes me confused. It is their nature.
“Our offense — just inconsistent at playing up to their potential, to me”, Hal said in his State of the Franchise commentary on Tuesday’s The Michael Kay Show. He goes on to expand this to the general ups and downs of the Yankees, which I might counter with the point that 60 games is less useful than 162 at evaluating a team’s consistentcy, but the remark about the offense in particular caught my attention.
Since the beginning of the Baby Bomber era — well, in truth, before that but we’ll use the arrivals of Judge and Co. as our marker — the chief criticism of the offense has been that it wasn’t contact-oriented enough, too reliant on home runs and too accepting of strikeouts. This boom or bust approach led to inconsistency and exposure by top pitching, or so the narrative goes.
The team was actually more disciplined than any year of this core. They didn’t make any more contact — connecting on 75.8% of swings this year, the exact same rate in 2019, and 75.7% in 2018. They did, however, just swing less in general, especially at pitches out of the zone — their O-Swing rate of 26.8% was by far the lowest of the Baby Bomber era.
It’s hard to look at that and not see a clear plan of attack — the Yankees didn’t chase balls, and although they didn’t swing at strikes as often as they did last year, they did go after strikes more than in 2017 or 2018. Being aggressive on strikes is as important as being disciplined on balls.
So if it’s not plate discipline and striking out too much, what caused this offensive inconsistency?
Oh. The Yankees made contact, but they weren’t making the right kind of contact — hard hit balls in the air are great for offense, hard hit balls on the ground less so. To drive that home further, let’s just look at the baseline, expected Statcast outcomes for the Yankees this year vs. others.
As a team, the Yankees had an average exit velocity of 89.2 mph, and launch angle of 11.8 degrees. Batted balls with that combination carry a wOBA of .720, and about a 5% chance of being an extra base hit. However, last year the Yankees had an average exit velo of 90 mph, and crucially, a launch angle of 13.5 degrees, which carry a wOBA of .915 and a 12% chance of being extra base hits. Small changes in the angle of a ball’s flightpath, over a few hundred feet, rapidly change the expected outcome of those batted balls.
So really, the reason we’re not as thrilled with the Yankees’ bats in 2020 is largely, they couldn’t get the ball off the ground. Even the Yankees’ best player, and the one most often held up as an example of a contact hitter, follows this perfectly:
DJ LeMahieu had a really good first half of the season — nobody would complain about a .428 wOBA. But you can see how his groundball rate decreased as the year went on, and what that did to his offensive production — he had a really strong July and August, but absolutely hammered the ball in September, finishing the season on a tear largely driven by getting the ball off the ground.
The Yankees were more disciplined than we’ve seen them be with this core. The driver of offensive inconsistency wasn’t striking out too much, it was hitting the ball on the ground. Elevate and celebrate, folks.