Earlier this week, MLB admitted what we knew all along — they had the power to control the “juice” of the ball, to a certain extent at least, and were going to take steps to deaden it ahead of the 2021 season. It seems MLB is agreeing with fans and commentators who say the game is too home run reliant, and is engineering the baseball to reduce the incentive of the “home run or bust” approach.
This is a competitive change that will obviously affect every team in baseball, but not every team equally. The Yankees, for example, are a team with two players who boast historical power potential in Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. You don’t need me to tell you that the twosome are probably the best power hitters in the game — just go watch their playoff run in 2020.
But the Yankees also have a number of players that benefit greatly from Yankee Stadium, and likely from the juiced ball. The first time we really paid close attention to a juiced ball was in the 2017 season, when two Yankees, Didi Gregorius and Brett Gardner set new career highs in home runs and slugging percentage, despite their underlying metrics looking more questionable. They were the two biggest beneficiaries of a funky baseball, while also, admittedly, taking advantage of the stadium they played in.
Now, the Yankee middle infield takes advantage of the stadium they play in...and potentially the ball as well. Gleyber Torres and DJ LeMahieu, since the start of 2019, have combined for 77 home runs, but their expected numbers, based on how hard they hit the ball and how often they hit it in the air, said they should only have hit 63. Again, YSIII plays a big part of that, but I think it’s at least reasonable to think that a strange baseball did too. For DJ, I wrote last year about how at least six of his home runs since becoming a Yankee wouldn’t have left the park if he played anywhere else. It’s then plausible, I think, for us to say that a slightly weaker ball would affect performance even at YSIII.
Yesterday Peter wrote a counter to this idea, using a nifty set of metrics in Statcast’s HR tracker. The Yankees have a lot of big, scary guys that mash the baseball — more than half the home runs that Luke Voit, Gary Sánchez, and Clint Frazier hit are home runs in any ballpark. These guys don’t really get a Yankee Stadium premium. Contrast that with the double play combination.
Over the last two years, DJ LeMahieu ranks 311th out of 372 hitters in what’s called “No Doubter %”, or the percentage of fly balls that would be home runs in virtually every ballpark. Gleyber Torres is 318th on that same list. There are caveats to every expected metric, of course, but a ball carrying just a little bit less means I wouldn’t expect DJ and Gleyber to combine for another 70 home runs in 2021.
That’s why Stanton and Judge become proportionally more important. Voit, Sánchez and Frazier don’t get cheated on their dingers, but Stanton and Judge are more powerful than all of them. The biggest difference between Judge and Stanton, and those other guys, is Judge and Stanton haven’t played — they’ve combined for just 727 PAs since the start of 2019, or 17 fewer than Voit alone over that same timespan.
Eric Cressey has, apparently, modified both Judge and Stanton’s workout regimens to try and keep them in the lineup more. If the Yankees are going to see a reduction in power from their middle infield, a consequence not of injury but of engineering, they’re going to need the two best power hitters in the game on the field to pick up the slack.