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RIP Earthworms: The Yankees and ground balls

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Analyzing the offense after one week of play.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

I was so excited for the start of the season. This was supposed to be the year that everything clicked — DJ LeMahieu continued his MVP-level play, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton would be healthy, and having bats like Gleyber Torres and Clint Frazier in the bottom half of the lineup was just ... ludicrous depth.

Now we’re a week into the season, and I hope this sentence serves as an endearing caveat that It Is Early. However, a week in, the offense hasn’t really impressed. It hasn’t been bad — it sits 12th in baseball in wRC+ — but against two teams that weren’t expected to have loaded pitching, it’s fair to say that the offense is underwhelming so far. I wanted to see if there was a reason for this, if it’s simple bad luck, or both.

Start with what so many fans think the problem with this ballclub is: they strike out too much. Parade of strikeouts, too many whiffs, can’t put the ball in play, etc. The Yankees are actually 20th from the top in strikeout rate, at 23.1 percent. That’s virtually identical to the rate they put up over the full 2019 season. Being in the bottom third of strikeouts is a good thing, the Yankees aren’t whiffing more than most teams — they’re actually considerably more disciplined than most.

And if you’re the type of person to say they strike out too much in the nebulous “clutch” statistic ... well, that’s not really true either. As sample size increases, players pretty much play about the same in all situations; for example, leaguewide, batters strike out 0.65 percent more often with runners in scoring position (RISP) than they do overall, which is a small enough sliver to be a rounding error. At the team level, the Yankees do strike out a little more often with RISP, about 1.5 percent more often than overall, but that is quite literally the MLB median. In fact, teams that whiff more often with RISP than the Yankees include the Dodgers, Padres, and Astros — all widely expected to be playoff teams with strong offenses. Two teams better than the Yankees at avoiding K’s with men in scoring position? Cleveland and Texas. I don’t want to be Cleveland or Texas, and you shouldn’t either.

So, the strikeouts are probably not the primary culprit for the offensive malaise. The problem isn’t the Yankees not making contact, it’s what happens when they do make contact:

For as far back as we have Statcast data, the lineup has never hit so many balls on the ground. The team fully embraced the “elevate and celebrate” mantra over the past few seasons, bringing up fly-ball hitters like Judge, trading for fly-ball hitters like Luke Voit, and signing line-drive hitters like DJ LeMahieu. Y’know what those guys also have in common? They hit the ball hard.

Or at least, they usually do. One of the reasons why LeMahieu has been so consistent with the Yankees, for example, is because he hits so many balls hard. He is an offensive force not because he hits the ball 120 mph, but because a huge percentage of his contact lies within the 95-100 mph range.

That hard contact simply hasn’t been there in the first week. I don’t care about Mike Tauchman’s hard-hit rate, but I do care about LeMahieu, Frazier, and the guys who are going to be in the lineup every day.

These bats that raise the ceiling of the team so much have been inducing the worst kind of contact. Ground balls that aren’t hit hard become outs, and even when they’re hits, they’re not the kind of hits that do damage. Frazier and LeMahieu are both slugging under .400, and LeMahieu actually sits under .300 (!), a reflection that even if they reach base, they’re not in a position to create runs.

It’s the first week. If the Yankees went 3-3 in the middle of August, nobody would be looking at how many ground balls the team hit. The most likely outcome is that the team adjusts, regresses back to its baselines, and we see more hard contact, line drives, and fly balls. Still, if you want to know why the Yankees aren’t as impressive at the plate as we were expecting, it’s not the strikeouts. It’s the soft grounders to second.