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Do the Yankees need more left-handed hitters?

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Lack of run scoring was an issue last season, but was the team’s performance against right handed pitching a problem?

MLB: Minnesota Twins at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees’ offense was one of the more discussed aspects of the team’s play throughout the 2021 season. Despite varying theories of what was the cause of the problem, there was 100 percent agreement among all who were watching that there was in fact a problem. The bottom line is that baseball’s currency is runs, and the Yankees weren’t particularly good at scoring them.

Many people felt that the lack of production from left-handed batters was an issue for the team. If you’ve read my articles before, then you know I was rather dismissive of that assessment (those who were around me privately will tell you I was more than dismissive in that context). To me, the explanation just seemed too easy to fall back upon. Regardless of how long you’ve been a Yankee fan, you’ve been hearing some version of “short porch, left-handed power, etc.,” forever. The idea also conveniently ignored the fact the Yankees led MLB in runs per game from 2019-2020 with next to no help from left-handed bats.

Today I’m here to tell you that in dismissing the notion, I may have been wrong. (Well, sort of … )

When this discussion arises during the season, it can be muddled by factors such as evolving rosters and smaller sample sizes. Now that we have the benefit of looking back at a full 162 games, let’s simply look at how the team performed against right-handed pitching and left-handed pitching respectively. Here is the Yankees’ OBP and SLG vs right and left-handed pitchers, and the respective league ranks for context:

OBP/SLG vs R/L

Stat vs LHP MLB Rank vs RHP MLB Rank
Stat vs LHP MLB Rank vs RHP MLB Rank
OBP .337 4th .316 14th
SLG .422 11th .400 18th

Clearly, the team performed better against left-handed pitching, hitting more or less league average against righties and better than league average against lefties. On the surface league average isn’t “bad” per se, but as a general rule “average” in more than two-thirds of the team’s PA (68.5 percent to be exact) isn’t going to win you too many Commissioner’s Trophies.

I’m a big fan of OBP and SLG, but they do leave some context out. Let’s look at what a few of the more advanced stats say about the team’s performance versus righties and lefties:

Advanced vs L/R

Stat vs LHP MLB rank vs RHP MLB rank
Stat vs LHP MLB rank vs RHP MLB rank
wRC+ 110 6th 97 13th
wOBA .330 7th .311 14th
DRC+ 107 4th 100 8th

The advanced measurements are a little kinder to the Yankees overall, but they still show significantly better performance against left-handed pitching than right. Of course, the initial reaction would be the team needs more left-handed bats (Brian Cashman obviously agreed and added Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo in late July), but before we jump to conclusions let’s take a closer look at the performance of the Yankees’ left-handed batters last season (Spoiler: things are about to get interesting.)

Yankees left-handed batters last season performed better against left-handed pitching than they did right-handed pitching. Yankees’ left-handed batters collectively posted an 85 wRC+ against righties and a 92 wRC+ versus left-handed pitching. Among batters with at least 50 PA, Anthony Rizzo, Tyler Wade, and Rougned Odor were (amazingly, to me) much better hitters against lefties than righties last season. Brett Gardner didn’t have a significant platoon split and Gallo was the only lefty true to expectations, hitting righties much better than lefties.

This means — and this is not breaking news, but it’s a point to be clear about — the solution to the problem of middling performance versus right-handed pitching isn’t “get more lefties in the lineup”, it’s “get more lefties who can pound right-handed pitching in the lineup.” This leads us to look to roster construction heading into 2022.

Of the five players named above, Gallo is the only one certain to return. Gallo creates some divisiveness among Yankees’ fans but let me assure the anti-Gallo contingent among you that if you want to beat up right-handed pitchers, you want Gallo in your lineup. He wasn’t good in his two months as a Yankee and still posted a 114 wRC+ against right-handed pitching in that time.

The Yankees showed some of their cards Friday night by designating both Wade and Odor for assignment. Brett Gardner, whether or not he returns is irrelevant with regards to this discussion, as it’s safe to say he isn’t going to strike fear in the hearts of AL right-handed pitchers even if he does return.

That leaves the Yankees with many possible scenarios and options regarding adding players via free agency and/or trades — far too many to comprehensively cover today. That doesn’t mean we can’t take a quick peek at how some of the names bandied about publicly did against right-handed pitching last season, both for curiosity’s sake and perhaps as a springboard for further discussion.

It’s no secret the organization is looking to upgrade at first base. Matt Olson’s name has come up often as a trade possibility and the possibility of signing Rizzo or (far less likely) Freddie Freeman as a free agent has been discussed as well. Against right-handed pitchers, last season Freeman posted a 148 wRC+, Olson 138 wRC+, and Rizzo 98 wRC+ (although for his career Rizzo’s OPS is 86 points higher against righties than lefties). Of interesting note, Olson has hit 91 home runs since 2019: according to Baseball Savant it would have been 101 with his at-bats in Yankee Stadium. Freeman would only see a five home run bump in the same scenario.

Although it appears the team isn’t going to back up the Brinks truck for a shortstop, it wouldn’t hurt to take a peek in that direction (if for no other reason than we have a name to yell into the void when the team goes the inexpensive route). As you would expect, Corey Seager’s wRC+ of 149 versus righties last season wasn’t just the best among the available options, but he might benefit even more than Olson when taking his swings in the Bronx. Seager has hit 60 home runs since 2019, it would have been 73 if he played the majority of his games in Yankee Stadium, again according to Baseball Savant.

Lastly, many people outside the organization and likely some within it, feel center field is in need of an upgrade. Although the cost would likely be astronomical, Bryan Reynolds would not only be a huge upgrade in other areas, but he’d be a significant help with regard to the problem under discussion today. The switch-hitting Reynolds posted a 153 wRC+ versus right-handed pitching in 2021, best among center fielders with at least 300 PA. Of interesting note, Starling Marte, although a right-handed batter, posted a 144 wRC+ against righties last season — only three right-handed hitters in MLB did better against right-handed pitching than Marte.

To return to my position that I was wrong “sort of”: The team absolutely needs to be better against right-handed pitching next year, but that certainly wasn’t the only problem with the offense last season. I wrote twice before about how the team’s lack of power overall was a huge problem, how atrocious the baserunning was, and how (although we instinctively look to left-handed batters in this case) underperforming right-handed hitters was a bigger issue.

Regardless, it’s an interesting offseason point of discussion and may alter how we look at potential player acquisitions with regards to which players would best help this issue.