As unforgiving as it can be, baseball is also a game of second (and third) chances. After all, every batter gets three strikes. The real question, then, is just how often those batters should strike out.
The current Yankees squad is often viewed as frustratingly strikeout-prone, due in large part to players like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. They’re big guys who take big swings on a big stage — it’s no surprise they give fans the impression the lineup strikes out too often. But the recent emergence of more contact-oriented hitters in the Yankees’ lineup and the gradual, long-term growth of strikeout rates across the league complicate this narrative.
In 2017, Aaron Judge’s breakout season with the Yankees, the team’s strikeout rate was 21.8%, per FanGraphs. Definitely not a small number, and yet only the 13th-highest in baseball. In 2018, it climbed to 22.7%, but it was still just 12th in the league, as organizations continued to grow more comfortable with — or even encourage — high-strikeout players.
Last year, the newly-arrived DJ LeMahieu and Gio Urshela were celebrated not only for succeeding, but for doing so in an old-school, contact-friendly way. Their styles contributed to an interesting shift in the lineup’s numbers.
Even though the Yankees’ strikeout rate did creep up to 23%, the team was just the 19th-most strikeout-prone club in baseball. For years, the Yankees have leaned into a philosophy unworried by players with a higher K%, but now the rest of the league seems to be leaning even harder.
It’s tough to say why the Yankees have recently employed a different kind of player. It could be a conscious roster-building choice after the Bombers’ offensive shortcomings in recent postseasons.
Or perhaps Brian Cashman is engaging in arbitrage — as the league’s interest in players with higher strikeout rates increases, so too do affordable opportunities to sign hitters with alternative skill sets. Maybe they’re simply signing and developing productive ballplayers, and not overthinking how they arrive at their production.
No matter the explanation, the Yankees’ strikeout rate appears to be stabilizing. And the trend might endure, at least to start the season. Sure, players like Gary Sanchez and Luke Voit will still punch out regularly. And Clint Frazier’s gracefully violent swing, which fans will likely see more of, will come with its fair share of whiffs, too. But without Stanton or Judge starting, we could see a more contact-driven group than we’ve grown accustomed to.
The reintroduction of Miguel Andujar puts another bat with a knack for contact into the lineup. His helicopter swing, much like LeMahieu’s opposite-field drives, looks and feels different from some of the bigger cuts on the team, and his track record supports the notion — he’s struck out just 16.3% of the time as a Major Leaguer.
Like every change, a small step toward contact hitting for the Bombers would come with trade-offs. Though last year’s Yankees still managed to see a lot of pitches, a hallmark of recent rosters, their walk rate did tick down, falling from 10% in 2018 to 9.1% in 2019. This season’s early months could help determine if this change was just a blip, or if it’s part of a deeper shift in the team’s makeup that will persist even when Judge and Stanton return.
To be clear, the Yankees aren’t transforming into a light-hitting team. They still dig the long ball. Even without Stanton for the majority of 2019, they went toe-to-toe with the Twins over the single-season home run record, and have plenty of guys who can smoke the ball. Many of them just do so with a different style from their two towering corner outfielders.
And if Judge and Stanton return to a team that has reconfigured its strategy in their absence, it’s a good thing. The choice of approaches at the plate doesn’t have to be binary; the Bronx is big enough for the both of LeMahieu and Judge.
If the Yankees play deep into October, as is their stated goal, a diverse offensive repertoire could very well be rewarded. And if they reach the ultimate prize of a World Series title, every strikeout along the way will be forgiven.