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How far have the Yankees fallen from their offensive doctrine?

We’ve heard the mantra “control the zone” repeated countless times the last few years. Have the Yankees forgotten their own gameplan?

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Yankees offense is mired in its worst slump since the team’s sluggish 5-10 start to the season. As of Monday night, they are 1-6 dating back to the series against the Blue Jays including a sweep at the hands of the lowly Tiger. During this stretch, the team scored less than two runs per game, struck out at a 29.1 percent clip, and batted a collective .206.

Coming into the season, myriad questions surrounded the pitching staff cobbled together on a hard-capped budget. No one could have foreseen the offense being the Achilles heel of the team. The Yankees had too many sluggers top to bottom with proven track records to fail.

That got me wondering, what was it that made the offense so productive in the Boone era and why is it failing so miserably now? Following the series opener loss to the Rays on Monday, Lindsey Adler of The Athletic asked Aaron Boone how he would characterize the Yankees’ offensive philosophy, and this is what he had to say:

“Control the strike zone, and do damage when you get a pitch that’s a mistake or your pitch to do damage with. That’s the identity we’ve gotta get back to having. That’s what these guys have been so good at over the last several years, is that pass the baton, make a pitcher work. When you get done with us in a series — even if you’ve had success on a given day or success in a given series where a guy’s pitched really well — we want you to feel like it was heavy, it was difficult, it was a lot to get through us. That hasn’t been the case enough and that’s what we gotta get back to as a group, really making sure we are not taking it all upon ourselves, but going up there and grinding out a really tough at bat. If we can do that with the guys we have in there that are capable, that should start to work.”

There’s a lot to unpack here, so I’d like to zero in on two aspects: controlling the zone and doing damage on mistake pitches. To me this boils down to having good plate discipline, not expanding the zone, and slugging pitches that catch too much of the plate. Let’s see if this was indeed the driving force behind the Yankees’ past success, and if deficits in this area underlie the most recent struggles and those at the beginning of the season.

When Aaron Boone was hired as Yankees manager prior to the 2018 season, he inherited a stacked lineup studded with feared sluggers. Since then, they have added or developed additional productive bats including Giancarlo Stanton, DJ LeMahieu, Luke Voit, and Gio Urshela. Between 2018 and 2020, they were one of the best offenses in the league, in large part due to the aforementioned philosophy.

Before we begin, we must determine what “controlling the zone” and “doing damage on mistakes” mean. To me, if a batter is controlling the zone, they are limiting strikeouts, walking at a good clip, and not expanding the zone — therefore the relevant metrics for this analysis are strikeout rate, walk rate, and chase rate.

As for doing damage on mistakes, we must first categorize a mistake pitch. Statcast has their own metric for this, what they call a “meatball,” or a pitch thrown middle-middle. The problem is, there’s not a large enough number of these pitches to have stable results, so I’ll include anything thrown in the “heart” zone to get a larger sample size. For a player to do damage on these kinds of pitches, they must identify them well out of a pitcher’s hand and make solid contact — so a metric like wOBA against mistake pitches is a good place to look.

Between 2018 and 2020, the Yankees had a middling strikeout rate (22.7 percent) but walked at the second-highest rate in the majors (9.8 percent) and expanded the zone at the eighth-lowest rate (29.9 percent chase rate). They held the highest wOBA (.341) in MLB over that timespan, but it’s against mistakes where they really shined. That wOBA jumps to .398 against pitches in the heart of the zone, tops in MLB.

So it appears the professed philosophy holds water — they controlled the zone at an elite level and punished mistakes better than any other team. Now for the meat of the investigation: did a deterioration of these abilities occur during the two cold streaks, and did they resurface temporarily during the 23-9 hot stretch?

During the team’s 5-10 limp out of the starting gate, the Yankees struck out at a 25.1 percent clip (13th-worst in MLB), walked 10.3 percent of the time (fourth in MLB), carried a 28 percent chase rate (fifth-lowest in MLB), and only managed a .330 wOBA against mistakes (24th in MLB).

Then over the hot streak, they improved to a 23.9 percent strikeout rate (still 13th-worst), 11.3 percent walk rate (second in MLB), had a 28.3 percent chase rate (still fifth), and ticked up to a .366 wOBA against mistakes (13th in MLB).

Now during the current slide, they own the third-worst strikeout rate (29.1 percent), middle-of-the-pack walk rate (8.9 percent), third-lowest chase rate (26.6 percent), and .333 wOBA against mistakes (21st in MLB).

That’s a lot to process, and not quite the cut-and-dry results I was hoping for. It looks like they strikeout a bit more and walk a bit less during the cold stretches. The chase rate has stayed consistently elite. The most telling difference is their performance against mistake pitches, but even then, it’s only around a ten percent drop-off during the lows relative to the highs.

Still, I guess when you add all the little shortcomings together, you get one large delta in results, but I’m still at a loss how it can result in the runs per game being cut in half. So I’m going to declare this analysis inconclusive. While there may be some truth in what Boone said — that the team has gotten away from the philosophy of “controlling the zone” and “doing damage on mistakes” — I’m not convinced that’s all there is to the story.