Over the last few seasons, the New York Yankees have overhauled a large portion of their coaching staff. Following the 2019 campaign, they added Matt Blake to modernize the team’s pitching regimen, a move that has seemingly paid off, as the 2021 Yankees pitching staff defied preseason skepticism to finish second in the AL in fWAR, third in ERA, and fifth in runs/game. They carried an underwhelming offense to a playoff spot, even on the final day of the regular season: a 1-0 victory.
Right as Blake came aboard, Eric Cressey rewrote the team’s strength and conditioning program, and two seasons later — around the time that these types of changes begin to have an effect — Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton had their healthiest seasons in years. Rachel Balkovec became the first woman hired as a full-time hitting coach for an MLB organization, and the Yankees’ farm system saw offensive explosions all season long (particularly in the low minors), with multiple prospects catapulting themselves into important parts of the Yankees organization.
If there’s one part of the organization that has not been infused with new blood in recent years, it’s the hitting staff at the Major League level. Current hitting coach Marcus Thames has been part of the organization since 2015, first starting as the assistant to Alan Cockrell, then taking over the head job once Aaron Boone was hired as the Yankees manager and Cockrell’s contract was allowed to expire.
Make no mistake, though. As much as Thames has been a popular punching bag throughout the fanbase this season, and for good reason — every member of the Yankees lineup except Judge and Stanton underperformed this season — his overall track record with the Yankees has actually been pretty good. Under his watch, they led the AL in runs/game in 2019 and 2020 and came in second in 2017 and 2018. The 2019 job in particular was no small feat, given the sheer number of players who cycled on and off the IL that year. Thames was even seen as a future manager; just last year, after all, he was on the shortlist for the Detroit Tigers’ managerial job.
Coming into the 2021 campaign, the Yankees’ offense was expected to be one of the most explosive in the league, as everybody returned from a lineup that had 12 players with a wRC+ over the 2019 and 2020 combined. To say that lineup failed to materialize would be an understatement. Part of that, surely, was due to injuries — Aaron Hicks struggled through wrist pain before requiring season-ending surgery, Clint Frazier battled dizziness issues that have jeopardized his career, Luke Voit tore his meniscus and spent most of the season on the shelf, and who knows how long DJ LeMahieu was dealing with hip/groin tightness that turned out to be a sports hernia? Far more alarming, however, was the fact that everyone healthy outside of Judge and Stanton took major steps back at the plate compared to 2019-2020. (I include both years due to the short sample size of 2020).
Over the summer, as the Yankees season floundered, there was a lot of talk about the role of analytics in the organization, with many writers insinuating that the team was over-reliant on them. Honestly, that was eyewash, as the teams whose lineups have been the most consistently successful over the last two years — the Houston Astros, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Los Angeles Dodgers — have historically been among the biggest proponents of analytics.
But what did intrigue me was a rather off-handed comment in Joel Sherman’s infamous interview with Yankees analytics guru Mike Fishman, in which it was suggested that the Yankees are not actually innovating, but following the innovations of others. Within the column that resulted from the interview, Sherman mused:
Is it possible, though, that the Yankees remained stuck on a philosophy of how to generate the greatest run differential and that other analytic departments recognized, for example, that speed or contact or being able to think and play at a high level simultaneously were attributes that were needed to go along with power? I have, for example, always wondered if the Yanks are trailblazers in analytics or simply if they see what is working in the moment and then put their manpower and finances behind that, leaving them one step behind in figuring out what is next.
Earlier in 2021, Josh broke this piece down for us, so I’m not going to get into this article and how it at times appears to deliberately portray analytics as a bogeyman for clicks. The more I have thought about this topic, however, the more I do agree with the notion that the Yankees might actually be behind the eight ball when it comes to hitting analytics.
Over the last few years, the team has deliberately gone out of its way to very outwardly modernize its practices when its current approach has fallen short. For example, Blake’s hiring came shortly after Sonny Gray pitched like an ace for the Cincinnati Reds and criticized the Yankees’ pitching coaches. A coincidence? Perhaps. But the fact remained that an All-Star performance from Gray would have given the 2019 Yankees the top-of-the-rotation arm that they needed. The Yankees clearly saw a problem in their pitching processes, and they went out and fixed it. (It wasn’t like Gray was the only talented pitcher to fall short under Larry Rothschild anyway.)
The fact that Thames has stayed on for so long suggests that the Yankees haven’t considered the offense to be a problem to fix, and up until now, that has been accurate. But the 2021 season changed the calculus, and it’s time for the Yankees front office to bring in a new hitting coach who can revolutionize the organization’s approach at the plate.
Who should that be? I’ll be honest, I’m unfamiliar with the landscape here, although Erica’s post last winter when it looked like Thames could become a manager includes some names that could be of interest. What I do know is that a “Matt Blake” type of hire is exactly what Brian Cashman and the 2021 manager should pursue.
Regardless of what the Yankees decide to do with manager Aaron Boone’s expiring contract, I expect that few fans would be thrilled to see either Thames or assistant hitting coach P.J. Pilittere back in the Yankee Stadium dugout on Opening Day. And on the whole, I agree, as there is little reason for Thames or Pilittere to continue serving as the team’s hitting instructors next year. (Although I would not complain if the team keeps one or both in the organization while reassigning their roles.)
Rather than making the change as a reaction to this season’s less-than-stellar performance at the plate, however, the change should be proactive in nature, designed to bring the team to the forefront of innovation at the plate. They’ve already made the same move on the mound and in the minor leagues, and it so far has paid dividends; it’s time to bring that innovative mentality to the plate in the Bronx.