Stemming from a joke Chris Taylor made about an ugly four-hit day in 2017, “Barrels are overrated” has become the Los Angeles Dodgers slogan of the playoffs. Starting this season, after each Dodger base-knock, the successful slugger turns towards the dugout and shakes out his hands, mocking as if he’s trying to relieve the pain caused by his jam-shot.
In this playfully showboating act of faux self-deprecation, the Dodger hitters are implicitly acknowledging that in the scorebook, despite whatever Statcast’s exit velocity and launch angle readings, ultimately results are all that matter. Though barrels are predictive of success, they don’t guarantee them. For example, though Yuli Gurriel had 15 balls hit 95 mph or more during the playoffs, the same number as Ronald Acuña Jr., Gurriel hit just .143 and slugged the same on his hard-hit balls while Acuna hit .400 and slugged .800.
Though Statcast’s definition of a barrel includes a launch angle requirement, the colloquial definition doesn’t. Whichever the Dodgers’ phrase cites, successful hitting at the Major League Level requires more than just a compilation of barrels.
The Yankees’ least valuable hitter, Gary Sánchez, is the living, breathing personification of the Dodgers’ semi-sarcastic motto. Sánchez has nearly unparalleled power, as even during his abysmal season, he still hit this season’s third hardest ball. When he did make contact, he hit the ball harder than almost every major leaguer. In 2020, he recorded 16 barrels with fewer batted-ball events than all but one player above him on the leaderboard. He trailed only Luke Voit amongst Yankees, and tied Cody Bellinger and Ronald Acuña Jr. (among others) for the 43rd most barrels in the majors. In of his barrel rates, Gary led all Yankees with 9.0% of his plate appearances ending in barrels (24th in MLB), and 17.4% of his batted ball events resulting in barrels (eighth in MLB).
Of course, Sánchez’s Achilles heel is his penchant for striking out — his 36.0 strikeout percentage was the tenth worst in the league among players with at least 100 plate appearances. However, as is typical for a catcher, it’s not due to his lack of feel for the strike zone. According to Statcast’s Swing & Take leaderboard, which awards a run value to every player’s swings and takes in and out of the strike zone, Sánchez was the fourth worst hitter in baseball at -13 runs. Despite his positive valuation on chase and waste pitches, Sánchez’s looked ill-prepared to crush meatballs, either taking a hittable strike or swinging and missing altogether as he recorded -10 runs on pitches in the heart of the zone.
Without getting too deep into the weeds of Sánchez’s flawed mechanics, as my colleague Peter Brody did earlier this season, Sanchez’s late stride denies him a chance to pick up pitches on-time, as he often looked clueless at the plate. Further, as I covered nearly two months ago, much of Gary’s struggles are a result of his over-eager, pressing mentality; futilely trying to dig his season out of a hole with one big swing, leading to worse and worse results.
Let’s go back to the Dodgers. While the Dodgers led the majors in barrels as a team in the regular season, it was only a small part of their offensive success. They finished second in batting average with runners in scoring position, consistently taking opportunities to drive in runs with the eighth most singles with runners in scoring position in the bigs. Sánchez, on the other hand, felt the walls closing in when he saw a pinstriped ally ahead of him, hitting just .122 with runners in scoring position, a couple dozen points worse than his regular season average.
The Dodgers’ timely successes have been no accident, according to Mookie Betts. When asked by the Wall Street Journal’s Jared Diamond about the team’s approach at the plate with runners on after their Game Three victory, Mookie had this to say:
It’s not always about driving the ball. I think we’ve proven that we can do that, and we’ve proven that we can take our singles too. And you know there’s a time and place to do both, and I think that we’ve done a good job of putting pride and whatnot to the side, and putting the long ball to the side, and just kind of playing pepper. You know that sometimes, that’s the way to play the game.
The Dodgers, in this postseason, have a higher batting average and wOBA with runners in scoring position than any team that made it out of the Wild Card round. Though a number of Yankees acquitted themselves quite well with runners in scoring position during the playoffs, like Gleyber Torres (two hits), DJ LeMahieu (three hits), and Giancarlo Stanton (three hits), Sánchez failed to record a single one, with two strikeouts and two fly-outs in four such plate appearances. “Playing pepper” seems like an almost entirely foreign concept to Gary, as more than half of his hits this season were for extra bases. I found just one instance of Sánchez hitting a pitch against the shift into right — and it happened on an outside pitch with runners on first and second.
I’m not sure Sánchez’s performance was necessarily overrated, but his propensity for hitting barrels certainly has been. If Sánchez were willing to aim his sights lower more often, especially when the Yankees need him to, he’d likely make more of his uncommon offensive talents. With his legendary power, he’d be better off sacrificing a tad of it to take more under control swings, making more contact and striking out less, especially when the team needs it most.