Once widely regarded across the league as one of the most feared lineups in baseball, the Yankees’ approach at the plate in 2021 has left a number of fans scratching their heads. Where are the homeruns? What happened to the *expletive deleted* savages in the box? And how many more rally-killing double plays are we going to have to sit through?
In the comment sections of my articles about the offensive struggles of Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres, a prevailing theory has emerged: the Yankees, as an offensive unit, have traded their aggressive approach from years past for a more patient one, and it has handcuffed the lineup’s ability to produce. Without diving into the data, I do have to admit that, based on the games I’ve seen this year, I would tend to agree. But does the data support that theory? I’m not so sure it does. Or, rather, I don’t think it does in the way we think it does.
The logical place to begin, I suppose, would be overall Swing Percentage. While the red and grey lines are there to demonstrate league-wide highs and lows respectively, the blue line is the one you want to look at. In four years under Aaron Boone, the Yankees Swing Percentage has only resulted in an overall percentage change of -0.3 percent. So, yeah, technically the team is swinging less, but a difference like that spread out over four years is basically negligible. Next!
Okay, now we’re talking. After staying relatively flat for three years, the Yankees’ First Pitch Swing Percentage has taken an absolute nosedive this year. According to FanGraphs, the league average for first pitch strikes is hovering right around 59-60 percent and about 49.9 percent of all pitches the Yankees are seeing are fastballs. While this graph, of course, doesn’t account for the quality or type of first pitches, the underlying assumption, to me, is that the Yankees are letting too many first pitch fastballs in the zone go. Simply put, this is a lineup designed to hunt the fastball, but they haven’t been doing that aggressively enough this year.
Speaking of pitches in the zone, the above chart reflects the Yankees’ approach when it comes to swinging at all pitches in the strike zone, regardless of type or count. As you’ll notice, aside from a marginal jump in 2019, the Yankees have remained relatively flat when it comes to swinging at pitches in the zone. In fact, an average of 67.4 percent over four years puts them right in the middle of the pack across the league. In other words, not a whole lot to see here in favor of the too-patient-overall theory.
Because of the presence of both Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, the Yankees have earned a reputation as a team that swings and misses a lot. Based on the figures above, though, it seems that those assumptions were quite overblown, as the Yankees fall right in the middle of the pack when it comes to whiffs. Once again, though, there is very little change from year-to-year, indicating that their approach at the plate has remained fairly consistent over the last four seasons. If we saw a big difference one way or the other that would likely indicate a change in philosophy, but it’s all pretty consistent in my view.
The next logical place to go, seeing as we just discussed whiffs, would be strikeout rates. Though it’s become common for fans to say that the lineup was more productive when they were striking out at higher rates — and that may be true when it comes to certain players — it turns out that they actually are striking out at a higher rate as a team this season. In fact, they’re currently 10th in the league in strikeout percentage.
And, finally, the last place I want to look brings us right back to the question of patience: the team’s walk percentage. Heralded as one of the teams to embrace the three true outcomes — walks, strikeouts, homeruns — this graph basically confirms that to be true. For the last two seasons the Yankees have led the league in walk percentage, and in the two other seasons they didn’t — 2018 and 2019 — they were 3rd and 12th respectively. So, stop me if you’ve heard this before, but their approach to walks has hardly changed.
Based on the data, I would argue that, contrary to what our eyes have shown us at times, the Yankees aren’t actually swinging less or looking to walk any more than they have in the four years since Boone took over. As evidenced by relatively flat year-over-year rates in most of the above statistics, the Yankees overall approach at the plate hasn’t changed that drastically — they’re just as patient as they’ve always been.
Rather than a total overhaul of their approach at the plate, however, I think they’re swinging at the wrong times. Rather than maintaining the first pitch aggressiveness that we’ve seen since 2018 and ambushing strikes early in the count, their drastic fall-off in First Pitch Swing Percentage suggests they’re taking too many good pitches. Yes, being patient drives up pitch counts and gets starters out of the game early, but it also leads to an increased likelihood of seeing more breaking balls than one would like to see.
As I’ve mentioned previously, we’ve seen noticeable dips in First Pitch Swing Percentage from multiple Yankees, including Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres, Gary Sánchez, and, most egregiously, Clint Frazier. As a whole unit, though, the lack of aggression on first pitches is a concerning trend from a lineup built to hammer the fastball. As a result, their strikeout percentage is steadily climbing up and offensive production is steadily falling.
I will caution, however, that while a lack of aggression on first pitches certainly might be a start, it doesn’t inherently explain away all of the Yankees’ offensive problems. If you dig deeper into individual statistics, there are concerning trends when it comes to launch angle and exit velocity, and as a team, the groundball versus flyball versus line drive rates have also been trending in the wrong direction. But I’m going to save that analysis for another article.