It’s December 26th, and the Yankees still don’t have a clear-cut starting left fielder. In some respects, it still feels too early to be worried, but following a lockout in 2021, a pandemic in 2020, and several preceding seasons of glacial free agent markets, the 2022 offseason has moved at a furious pace, comparatively speaking. It’s become a matter of course to see a handful of top free agents from each class remain in negotiations will into the new year, sometimes even into spring training and the regular season. That won’t be the case this year, Carlos Correa drama aside. We’ve still got a week to go before the calendar turns, and the top 32 free agents on the MLB Trade Rumors offseason list have already found homes.
The Yankees lineup is strong enough that a big acquisition for left field to fill out the roster isn’t poised to be a difference-maker in terms of competing for a championship. That said, there’s still a palpable sense of anxiety about filling a hole that’s been troubling the team since the last time Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks and Brett Gardner were productive at the same time. The fact that Hicks no longer seems capable of contributing at a league average level is part of what makes the route taken here perhaps of outsized importance; it leaves Anthony Rizzo as the only left-handed hitter on the roster with anything resembling punch in his bat. Whomever is the starting left fielder for the 2023 Yankees, their statistical output might wind up being of secondary importance to their hitting profile and what they look like at the plate.
There’s no such thing as a perfect lineup, but diversity in talent is generally a good thing. Being good in a variety of ways is usually preferable to being really good in one way. PSA’s own Esteban Rivera wrote recently at FanGraphs about how the diversity of swing types and paths in the Astros lineup is another element of their offense that sets them apart, which is a good segue into the stakes of the Yankees decision in the outfield. The club still has to decide how much they want to mitigate the heavy right-handed skew that’s characterized their lineup to varying degrees in recent years.
The 1472 lefty-on-righty plate appearances taken by the Yankees in 2022 were good enough for 23rd in MLB and 11th in the American League, both of which were their highest finishes since 2018, when Hicks, Gardner, and Didi Gregorius were all in the fold. Over half of those 2022 plate appearances, however, were taken by Joey Gallo, Marwin González, Matt Carpenter, and Andrew Benintendi, none of whom will be taking any plate appearances for the 2023 Yankees. Other than the presumed full-time addition of switch-hitter Oswaldo Cabrera, holdovers Rizzo and Hicks are the only southpaw hitters on the roster, and so the roster is poised to once again return to its 2019-2021 levels of lineup construction, when their 3208 combined left-on-right PAs were nearly 200 fewer than the next team in the AL.
Generally speaking, the importance of platoon splits can be a bit overstated, as it often takes upwards of 1000 plate appearances at the MLB level to know if any given hitter is measurably better against one side than the other. And the only AL team to get fewer left-on-right chances between 2019 and 2022 was, in fact, the Astros, who also just won the World Series without rostering a left-handed pitcher throughout nearly the entirety of the postseason. The game is changing: while there are certainly exceptions, the classic category of “platoon” player — nails against one side of the mound, unplayable against the other — is a bit rarer than we might think. Most of the time, a hitter who’s really good against opposite-handed pitching is also good enough against same-handed pitching that they’re not actually a true platoon player. All in all, having lots of plate appearances with the platoon advantage is nice, but it’s clearly not going to get in the way of a really good team being really good.
By that same token, the Astros are still a bit of a fallacious example. While Gallo, Gonázlez, and Hicks were brutal enough to offset Carpenter and Rizzo to pull the Yankees’ collective left-on-right wRC+ to a league-average 101, the large majority of Houston’s L-v-R matchups were in the hands of Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, and Michael Brantley, the first two of whom are in an offensive tier above Rizzo even in a good month, much less Hicks. The result? A 125 wRC+ that led all of baseball. In true, retch-worthy Astros fashion, it was the pinnacle of efficiency.
The Yankees lineup is still far away with reaching such Nirvana. I don’t have Esteban’s VBA (vertical bat angle) data to measure exact variations in swing angle, but one has to imagine that replacing Gary Sánchez with Josh Donaldson did little to change the overall lineup profile that opposing pitchers had to prepare for. There’s a reason they managed a team-wide 115 wRC+ despite a league-worst BABIP in the .270s. It was a slow-footed team that loved putting the ball in the air and favored the three true outcomes, and tendencies towards the extremes can come back to roost come playoff time. There might be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy between them and conclusions I just drew from the Astros: Perhaps there’s a universe in which 2022 Gallo isn’t awful, or where Benintendi and Carpenter are healthy for October, making the Astros’ lack of lefties in their bullpen actually look like a problem. We don’t know the answer, but it’s certainly not a new question, either.
Even last year’s midseason pivot from Gallo to Benintendi is telling, as is the team’s interest in re-signing the latter, if not at the level of commitment the White Sox were willing to make. Rather than yanking everything in sight like Gallo and Carpenter, Benintendi is a spray-hitting line-drive hitter who makes a lot of contact with a relative paucity of strikeouts. The interest in giving Benentendi four years alongside an apparent lack of sniffing around Michael Conforto hints that filling the gap in left field isn’t just about finding a suitable lefty bat — it’s about finding a suitable bat that gives the lineup some sorely lacking diversity in swing and approach. That bat might not even be a lefty. A righty with DJ LeMahieu or Michael Brantley’s super-flexible swing and good bat-to-ball ability might still be a better answer than yet another power-and-plate-discipline type with a ton of loft in their bat path.
It’s understandable why anxiety abounds about how the Yankees will fill out their roster. It’s also understandable that simply signing or trading for the player with the best stats isn’t necessarily going to address the big-picture flaws in the offense. Cashman’s approach in acquiring Benintendi and Harrison Bader gives us a hint at what the process might look like. It may not be a splashy acquisition, particularly with Oswaldo Cabrera’s newfound ability to play the outfield. This is one of those circumstances where the “right” bat is probably better than the “best” bat, if that makes any kind of sense. For now, we can only wait and see.