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Mike Tauchman’s future with the Yankees is suddenly murky

A year ago, it seemed like the Yankees had found another diamond in the rough. Now, things aren’t so clear.

Wild Card Round - New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians - Game Two Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

How a year changes things.

Coming off the 2019 season, Yankees fans could be forgiven for thinking their front office had an alchemist on staff, spinning other teams’ spare parts into gold. After all, they appeared to have recently unearthed gems in Luke Voit and Gio Urshela and it seemed Mike Tauchman, acquired from the Colorado Rockies at the beginning of the year, was just the next in a growing list of players to benefit from pinstripe pixie dust.

Pressed into duty because of injuries, the outfielder dubbed The Sock Man by John Sterling burst onto the scene in impressive fashion. His excellent defense across all three outfield positions, combined with his on-base skills and lefty power, resulted in 3.8 bWAR in roughly half a season’s worth of playing time. The question heading into 2020 was whether the Yankees would be able to get him the at-bats justified by his breakout performance. Now, after a disappointing, albeit brief, 2020 campaign, the more appropriate question might be: does Tauchman deserve a spot on this roster at all?

Let’s start answering that question by comparing Tauchman’s 2019 and 2020 seasons.

2019: 87 G, 296 PA, .277/.361/.504, 13 HR, 11.5% BB, 24% K, 127 OPS+, 3.8 bWAR

2020: 43 G, 111 PA, .242/.342/.305, 0 HR, 12.6% BB, 23.4% K, 84 OPS+, -0.2 bWAR

The first thing to note is the incredibly small sample size from this just-concluded season. Are 111 plate appearances enough to make a definitive judgment on a player? Certainly not. But it’s worth noting that neither are the 296 plate appearances from the previous year. Tauchman simply doesn’t have a long major league track record (he only registered 69 career plate appearances prior to 2019), so we’re slightly handicapped.

Still, there are a few things that jump out. First, his walk and strikeout rates from each season are in roughly the same zone (and both solidly above average as well). So we can rule out plate discipline issues as the main reason for his 2020 struggles. The second notable figure, however, is that big, fat zero next to home runs. And that does speak to Tauchman’s big issue this past season: quality of contact.

According to Baseball Savant, Tauchman’s average exit velocity dropped from 88.7 mph in 2019 to 85.4 mph in 2020 (the MLB average was 88.3 mph this past year, so he was well off the pace). His hard hit rate dropped from 38.9% to 25.4%; barrel rate dropped from 6.3% to 1.4%; expected slugging dropped from .422 to .320. He also pulled the ball far less often: 20% this past year, compared to 29.5% in 2019.

A look at pitch breakdowns shows what had become, by season’s end, clear to the naked eye: Tauchman was especially susceptible to fastballs. 64.9% of the pitches he saw in 2020 were heaters and he hit just .173 off them with a .250 slugging. The previous year, he hit .286 with a .537 slugging (though his expected stats weren’t as gaudy — a .262 xBA and .456 xSLG — which may suggest his offensive breakout was a bit softer than his overall numbers indicated.)

Tauchman also had a problem making contact, period. While we mentioned his strikeout rate was good, he did swing and miss far more often compared to 2019: 28.9%, up from 21.7% (for context, the league average whiff rate was 24.5% in 2020, which means that, just as with exit velocity, Tauchman found himself sliding into solidly below-average territory).

So, taken together, Tauchman swung and missed a lot more, struggled to hit fastballs, made weaker contact when he did hit the ball, and pulled the ball noticeably less. Sounds like his bat may have simply been slower this year, and declining bat speed is never good for player who will turn 30 ahead of the coming season.

His offense wasn’t the only thing that slipped. Tauchman’s eye-opening 2019 value stats were due in large part to his tremendous defensive contributions. In limited playing time, he was worth nine outs above average, Baseball Savant’s catch-all metric for defense. That placed him ninth among all outfielders, truly impressive in essentially half a season.

This year, albeit in much less playing time, he was worth just one out above average. Other defensive metrics, like defensive runs saved, also effectively graded him as neutral. Perhaps part of this regression is down to Tauchman literally slowing down. In 2019, he had a sprint speed of 27.9 feet per second, which ranked in the 72nd percentile league-wide. In 2020, that fell to 27.1 ft/sec, good for 58th percentile. He’s consistently dropped in sprint speed since 2018 (no surprise, as that’s part of getting older) but a similar drop this coming season would likely put him at merely average to slightly below.

All of this isn’t to say that Tauchman is bad defensively. But a player struggling to hit needs to be an obvious contributor in another facet of the game, and in this most recent sample of performances, he was roughly average. And if his slowing speed portends further regression in defensive value, then he’ll really need to rediscover his offensive potential if he’s to have any future as a Yankee.

Which brings us back to the initial question: does he still merit a spot on the Yankees’ roster? A lot of that will be determined by what the Yankees do with Brett Gardner. If they pick up his $10 million option for next season, then he’ll likely slot in as the club’s fourth outfielder, behind Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks and Clint Frazier, who’s done enough to earn a starting role next season. Even with a 26-man roster, keeping Tauchman around might be tough (he’s also out of minor league options).

But there are a few things still working in Tauchman’s favor. For one, bringing Gardner back is no sure thing, especially if the front office is saddled with a mandate to cut salary (Tauchman, in contrast to Gardner, would be entering his final pre-arbitration year and would be making close to the minimum). There’s also the unfortunate recent history of outfielder injuries, which might make the Yankees more likely to carry five outfielders. And there’s the very real possibility that the Yankees view 2020 as more small-sample noise than a true indication of Tauchman’s abilities.

What’s certain is that Tauchman’s hold on a job in the Bronx is much more precarious than it was just a short year ago.