One of the weaknesses of the Yankees’ roster this year was the gap between the talent of the starters and the talent of the bench. After the success of #NextManUp in 2019, the 2020 bench bats largely hit the way bench bats do, and one of the bigger disappointments was utilityman Thairo Estrada.
2020 Statistics: 26 games, 52 plate appearances, one home run, .167/.231.229, 29 wRC+, .212 wOBA
2021 Contract Status: Pre-arbitration eligible
The Yankees have a really strong starting infield, or at least, they did. DJ LeMahieu has been an MVP-caliber player over the past two seasons, Gio Urshela has blossomed into a star, and Gleyber Torres is projected for ten wins over the next two seasons. What the team really misses is a versatile backup — the kind of player who can field multiple positions, provide modest offensive production, and add a bit of speed.
Estrada does have some defensive versatility — he appeared at second, third and short in 2020, and is probably fine at all three spots. He only had 40 attempts on the infield, notching -1 OAA across all attempts, but breaking down his actual data shows just one ball he didn’t get to, which I’m willing to write off as not that important in a full, regular season.
The problem is that he can’t hit, at all. In two straight seasons, he’s hit below league average, and while in 2019, he logged a 91 wRC+ — perfectly acceptable for a bench bat — there were real warning signs that he was due for a step back. One of the metrics I like the most is max exit velocity, because it gives you a clue to the actual true talent of a hitter.
It’s really hard for a bad hitter to hit the ball 120 mph, and that’s why when you look at the max exit velocity leaderboard, the top of the list is filled with names like Christian Yelich, Aaron Judge and Mike Trout. There’s just no substitution for hitting the ball really, really hard, and it’s incredibly unlikely that you can “luck” your way into that kind of exit velo.
Last year, Thairo Estrada’s max exit velocity was the second-lowest on the team, behind only Miguel Andújar, who had a lost season. Greg Bird and Troy Tulowitzki were able to hit the ball harder than Estrada. This year, Estrada’s max velo was even lower than it was in 2019, by two mph, and it only eclipsed Estevan Florial and Jordy Mercer, neither of whom deserve even a backup role on an MLB roster at this point in their careers.
And that’s where we’re really at with Thairo Estrada. He does have some defensive value, and you expect that your bench pieces aren’t going to hit as well as your starters. After all, if they did, they wouldn’t be bench pieces. But a 29 wRC+ is just unplayable, and there is no level of defensive value that makes it worth carrying you on a roster.
Estrada does have one year left of minor league options, per Roster Resource, so he can probably stick around with the club and try and build up some offensive punch. However, the big step back taken in 2020 casts doubt on the internal infield replacements, and certainly increases the pressure on the Yankees to bring LeMahieu back. You might be able to rationalize getting 75 percent of DJ’s output for 10 percent of the cost, but you can’t rationalize a mere 10 percent of DJ’s output. That’s too little to bear.