“Now we have the unions, we have the gambling – and those are the best things to have - but…”
– Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall), in “The Godfather.”
The Yankees have overcome a sluggish start to the 2021 season by playing at a better than .700 clip for over one month now. An enormous factor in the turnaround, quite surprisingly, has been the performance of their pitching staff. So far this season, the Yankees’ pitching ranks first in the American League in runs allowed per game, ERA, ERA+, FIP, WHIP, K%, BB%, K%-BB%, and opponents’ OBP. If the Yankees don’t have the best pitching staff in baseball currently, they’ll certainly do until the best one shows up.
Another factor in the Yankees’ success, unlike the pitching, is not a surprise. The Yankees as expected, have generally been winning a war of attrition against American League pitchers. Yankee batters rank first in the AL in BB% and pitches seen per plate appearance, resulting in a team OBP of .320 which ranks fourth in the league. And as baseball writer Bill James noted years ago, and as Baseball Prospectus’ Rob Mains showed recently, maximizing opportunities – i.e., getting runners on base - has a higher correlation to run-scoring than whether or not opportunities are capitalized upon. Getting runners on base is simply the most important part of offense.
Now we have the pitching, we have the baserunners – and those are the best things to have - but…
Despite the plus OBP, the Yankees rank eleventh in the AL in runs per game. This is due to the rather astonishing fact that they have not hit with power this season. If you’re thinking “It’s OK, as long as the pitching is there and as long as they continue to draw walks and get clutch singles, they’ll be fine,” think again. As we’ll discuss in a moment, recent* history makes it pretty clear that it’s unlikely a team will win a World Series without power hitting.
*The “recent” history to which I refer goes back about 100 years, but for the sake of brevity, we’ll only go back five seasons today.
Additionally, if you’re dismissive about their lack of power thus far because “power numbers are down league-wide,” you’ll be surprised again. The Yankees haven’t hit with power this season relative to league averages, using any measurement you’d like.
Having a very good OBP but ranking eleventh in runs per game is what happens when you come in with AL ranks of fourteenth in extra-base hit percentage (XBH%), twelfth in SLG, eleventh in total bases, and eighth in home run percentage (HR%). If you’re wondering, as I was, exactly how serious of a problem a lack of power is, I found that the answer unfortunately is “very serious.”
Let’s look at the Yankees’ 2021 performance in some power-hitting departments and see how many teams have won World Series recently with similar levels of production. Here are the Yankees and the last five World Series winners and their league-wide ranks in each category. (To best compare apples to apples, I used where each team ranked in their respective league, American or National, except the 2020 Dodgers who played in the universal DH season.)
One doesn’t need to be a doctoral candidate in theoretical mathematics at the University of Michigan to see what the chart tells us: A good power-hitting team probably won’t be good enough to win – a team needs to be a very good power-hitting team if it expects to win a World Series. To take that one step further, the chances of a team that’s performing at the Yankees’ current level has an infinitesimal chance of winning. Also worth noting is that both the 2019 Washington Nationals and the 2016 Chicago Cubs finished behind a team that played in Coors Field in most of those categories, so one could argue they were actually a little better than those ranks suggest.
I’m not a swing guru, so I’m not going to suggest tips on how this issue can be addressed, but there are some aspects in play here that might suggest doom and gloom aren’t necessary yet.
The most obvious point is that it’s still early. Forty-seven games is not an insignificant sample size, but it’s still less than one-third of the season, which gives the team as a whole, and some individual players time to return to the mean.
Speaking of individual players…
A handful of regulars still aren’t hitting in the manner they did in 2020, and need to get back to the standards on the back of their baseball cards. Again, this isn’t in the “SLG is down league-wide” sense, it’s how they performed compared to league average last season and how they’re performing compared to league average in 2021. DJ LeMahieu slugged 176 points better than the league average last season; he’s 53 worse so far this season. Clint Frazier’s SLG was 97 points better than the league average last season, and 85 worse so far in 2021. Brett Gardner’s SLG was only 22 points below average last season; it’s 133 points worse this season.
To illustrate the significance of those drop-offs, remember that Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have hit with a lot of power this season. They’ve both spent the better part of 2021 obliterating baseballs, and the Yankees’ numbers team-wide are still substandard. The aforementioned players are exactly the players who need to start producing more than just singles to make a difference on the bottom line.
Here’s another possibility: Give Kyle Higashioka more at-bats. It may seem counterintuitive to think that if you’re looking for power, to consider taking Gary Sánchez out of the lineup, but the reality is since the start of 2020, Higashioka’s SLG has been 135 points better than Sánchez’s (.495 to .360), albeit in 184 fewer plate appearances. Even with the sample size differential and Higashioka’s recent slump, that’s a big power difference, and getting him more plate appearances is at least worth considering.
Of course, to be fair, playing without the reigning home run king for the first 36 games of the season didn’t help either. Luke Voit’s continued presence certainly should help the team’s power production ongoing.
Is it time for the panic button? No. But the lack of extra-base hits is a more serious concern than most realize, and it’ll need to improve if the Yankees plan on raising hardware this fall.