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How the Yankees’ plate discipline beat Cleveland

The Yankees were able to hit both aggressively and patiently, and switched up their approach for each game.

American League Wild Card Game 2: New York Yankees v. Cleveland Indians Photo by Joe Sargent/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The best offensive teams are able to attack in several different ways. If a player or team is a one-trick pony, poor results can happen against an opponent who attacks that weakness. For the Yankees, several analysts have pinned the team’s reliance on the long ball and propensity for strikeouts as a weakness, one that perhaps would be their undoing against an excellent pitching team in the Cleveland Indians.

Instead, the Yankees were able to beat the Indians in two games, and they did it on the strength of their offense. The long ball was absolutely vital to the team’s success, as it always will be, but the real key was how the Yankees were able to get runners on base in front of the big boppers.

The Yankees used two distinct approaches in the two games. In Game One against Shane Bieber, a pitcher who thrives on getting ahead of hitters with his fastball and putting them away with his hammer of a breaking ball, the Yankees resorted to ambush tactics. This was apparent from the first inning, when Bieber opened the game with four straight fastballs and was promptly greeted by a hard DJ LeMahieu single and a long Aaron Judge home run.

The Yankees are generally a patient team in the box — their 43.3 percent swing rate was the second-lowest in baseball. They also only swing at the first pitch 58 percent of the time, the third-least in the league. Knowing that this might fit in well with his fastball-first, curveball-second game plan, Bieber tried to attack the Yankees with heat early. However, the Yankees did their homework — and maybe read Tyler’s piece on Tuesday morning — and wouldn’t let Bieber establish his fastball. They also showed an uncanny ability to lay off all but the very nastiest of his curveballs, a pitch that he got most of his strikeouts on this season. The Yankees knew what they wanted to hit, and went out and took care of it against Bieber.

Impressively though, the Yankees were able to completely shift their strategy the next night against Carlos Carrasco, a pitcher who is in the bottom 10 among starters in fastball usage. Carrasco succeeds by getting hitters to expand the zone and chase, but the Yankees are actually one of the best teams in baseball when it comes to plate discipline. The Yankees actually had the best chase rate in the league this year, only leaving the zone on 23.2 percent of their swings. They also saw the fourth-most pitches per plate appearances this year (4.08), so on paper, they had a favorable matchup against Carrasco.

That plate discipline paid off in a big way, when Carrasco was forced to exit after three innings. He had only allowed two hits, but his three walks led to an early removal with the bases loaded. Of course, we all know what happened next, but it wouldn’t have been possible without the Yankees’ steadfast plate discipline putting runners on and forcing Carrasco out. The Yankees saw 3.8 pitches per plate appearance in Game One, but averaged 4.3 pitches per plate appearance in Game Two. The team rode that to success, to the tune of an incredible 12 walks and several of their big hits coming in deep hitter’s counts. It was a rapid about-face from the previous 24 hours, when the Yankees were more aggressive in the box, but it showed their ability to adapt in the season’s biggest games.

The Tampa Bay Rays are next on the docket for the Yankees, and they bring a variety of unique arms. There are flamethrowers, junk-ballers, sidearmers, short-armers, and LOOGYs on Tampa’s roster, and it’s what made them so hard for the Yankees to square up this year. The Yankees will have to be flexible to beat Tampa’s pitching, but fortunately, they’ve shown the ability to do that. That the Yankees are comfortable with both using aggressive and passive plate discipline tactics is a huge testament to their hitting coaches, and a trait that will serve them well against the Rays in the ALDS.