Coming into this season, everybody expected the Yankees offense to rank among the best in all of baseball — after all, they had led the AL in runs/game the last two seasons, and had kept the band together to try and make it three straight seasons atop the league. Instead, the team’s offense has completely shut down, with their 3.91 runs/game surpassing only the 28-39 Detroit Tigers in the American League.
Amidst this lackluster performance, writers, fans, and talking heads alike — basically, anybody with even a modicum of interest in the Yankees — have argued about whether or not this offensive collapse should have been foreseen. Some have pointed to both the hitters’ track records and the fact that the team has been underperforming its expected results based on Statcast data to encourage optimism that the offense will, in fact, turn it around. On the other hand, others have stressed the team’s largely-righthanded lineup and slowness on the basepaths to claim that the team’s alleged “home run or bust” philosophy doesn’t work.*
*I say alleged because it’s not really “home run or bust,” it’s more “singles aren’t all that productive”.
In truth, none of this matters. The fact of the matter is, coming into the season, nobody expected the Yankees offense to be this bad. Don’t believe me? Let’s compare the preseason ZiPS projections with the team’s actual performance so far.
Note: Players are sorted by how much WAR the projections expected each to accrue.
So far this season, exactly three Yankees have exceeded projections: Aaron Judge, Gary Sánchez, and Kyle Higashioka — and since Sánchez and Higashioka combine for roughly the same amount of plate appearances as Judge and DJ LeMahieu, that’s really only two spots in the lineup exceeding their projections. Of the remainder, Gio Urshela, Miguel Andújar, and Giancarlo Stanton are within a stone’s throw of their projections, which is a good thing for Stanton, but not so much for either Urshela or Andújar, since the projections hadn’t fully accounted for the former’s 133 OPS+ over the last two seasons, and the latter since the projections weren’t that great to begin with.
That’s better than anyone else can say, however, as Gleyber Torres, LeMahieu, Luke Voit, Brett Gardner, and Clint Frazier — all who were expected to play major roles in the offense — have yet to show any sustained success over the long haul at the plate yet this season. It is, in the words of a former Yankees skipper who has been residing in Philadelphia, “not what you want.”
Alright, so the projections showed no signs of decline, but to an extent, that’s not all that surprising. What about batted ball data? Despite the fact that the team is leading baseball with a 42.7 hard hit percentage and is fifth in the league in barrel percentage (9.4%), they have struggled to turn that hard contact into hits, in part due to a high groundball rate (45.5%, tied for seventh in the league) and low fly ball rate (34.4%, 21st in the league), the natural result of a launch angle of 11.5 degrees, 21st in baseball.
Were there any signs of this trend in 2020? That depends on what numbers you’re looking at. Yes, the 2020 Yankees had an average launch angle of only 11.8 degrees, which was 21st in baseball, but that number was skewed by LeMahieu’s 2.3 degree average launch angle. That itself was a product of a very wide distribution of launch angles that allowed him to post such a low average despite hitting 10 home runs in 50 games.
For reference, you generally want it to be closer to a bell curve peaking in the 10-25 area, which is the technical Statcast definition for a “line drive.”
With the exception of LeMahieu and Stanton, the latter of whom actually has lived around the 8-9 degree mark in pinstripes, everybody else who was a member of the 2020 starting lineup had an average launch angle in that “line drive” range.
Similar stories are found when looking at other stats. Strikeouts are slightly up and walks are slightly down relative to last year, but that’s been a league-wide phenomenon and not restricted to just the Yankees. They’re pulling the ball less, but without cross-referencing that data to hard hit percentage and launch angle, that in itself is meaningless and can be either positive (using the whole field more) or negative (weak grounders the other way).
Ultimately, it doesn’t seem like there was really any sign that the Yankees offense was going to fall apart the way it has in the early going of this season. I don’t like to parrot what anyone else is saying, but at the end of the day, the Yankees hitters just simply need to execute the way they have in the past and simply play better than they have.