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What should Dillon Lawson’s focus be with each hitter when the lockout ends? (Part 1)

The new Yankees hitting coach needs to get the most out of hitters like Torres and LeMahieu.

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New York Yankees v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

It’s tough being a coach in a lockout. The game of baseball is process-oriented and extremely reliant on communication. The lockout has thrown both this line of communication and the offseason’s collaborative adjustments into haywire. Hitting coaches have been left at their desks making plans for hitters with unknown timelines. For those who’ve worked with their players for an extended period, there are at least previous processes in place. For a coach like the Yankees’ Dillon Lawson, though, there is little to no previous processes in place, making the art of crafting his so called “menus” an extremely difficult task.

Lawson talked about his excitement and processes in a discussion with Lindsey Adler of The Athletic. It’s not like he’s reinventing the wheel or anything. The Yankees are loaded with experienced, talented hitters. However, the job of the hitting coach is to help his players get the most out of themselves, especially those who had below-average outcomes. Lawson needs to put together a menu for each hitter to make sure he is on the same page when it comes to their development.

Yes, this is a tough task, but it’s also a very thoughtful one. That’s why I’m going to give a version — albeit probably less detailed — of what I think the Yankees hitters’ menus should be going into 2022.

Fair warning: This is going to be a long one, and split into two parts. Today, I’ll talk about some hitters which fit into one type, whereas on Friday, I’ll focus on hitters who do not fit that type. The roster is also not complete yet, so I’ll only cover 10 hitters. We’ll kick it off with DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Aaron Hicks, and Kyle Higashioka.

DJ LeMahieu

There is a lot to dissect about LeMahieu’s season. Between the varied ball usage and his injury, it’s tough to say what happened. Don’t get me wrong; the arguments about him being hurt by a deadened ball are compelling, but that’s not something you go to your hitters and address as a problem because it’s not something they can control.

Since Lawson is such a firm believer in the “hit strikes hard” approach, he is a perfect fit to help LeMahieu improve his batted ball outcomes. One of the most valuable, underutilized tools on Baseball Savant is the Swing/Take profile. It’s a simple breakdown of how hitters fared on their swing decisions. LeMahieu’s decisions themselves didn’t change all that much from his great 2019-20 season to the 2021 campaign. What did change is the damage he did on those pitches, specifically in the heart of the plate.

In 2019, LeMahieu had +27 swing runs on pitches in the heart of the plate. He offered at them at a 70-percent rate and absolutely crushed them when he did swing. In 2021, that number flipped in the opposite direction, all the way to -19 swing runs in the heart of the zone. That’s not good! For whatever reason, LeMahieu’s production in the heart of the zone plummeted. It could be that his injury negatively impacted the force he could put into pitches that he previously pulverized.

It tracks logically. His sports hernia affected his ability to create “stretch” or space for him to rotate. When your pelvis is restricted, there’s less space to rotate your pelvis at the right time or with enough capacity. It could cause overcompensations and corrections in other areas, which significantly disturbed his hitting mechanics (ones that may have been impacted by his triceps injury as well). Lawson should make sure that LeMahieu understands the most successful version of his mechanics, and how his rehab/ramp-up can be catered towards getting his body back to that state of movements.

Gleyber Torres

For as talented as Torres is, he has always struggled against fastballs. Other than 2019, he has never had an xwOBA above .340 on four-seamers. Obviously Torres has had success in his career because of his ability to recognize and punish off-speed and breaking pitches, but he has still yet to put together the complete package.

A hitter doesn’t need to necessarily do one thing in his career that is a cliché, like hunting fastball and reacting breaking ball. That’s a narrow-minded approach to hitting. That said, there’s probably a reason why Torres’ best season was the one in which he was most successful against the fastball. Catering your swing and approach towards punishing fastballs when you’ve faced extended struggles could be a needed oversimplification.

That’d be my focus as Dillon Lawson: Adapting what is a very back-legged swing to doing more damage on fastballs by cueing Torres’ pelvic rotation more aggressively. He’s gotten away from it since 2019, and it led to a power sap and inability to damage fastballs.

Aaron Hicks

I understand that Aaron Hicks was a well-above average hitter in 2020, but he walked a fine line between taking just enough and too much. The best season of his career consisted controlled aggression. Hicks undeniably has one of the best eyes in the league. His walk rates prove that. Even so, he has untapped potential, which is hurt by him relying on that eye a bit too much at times.

There’s nothing wrong with Hicks taking all the walks he does, but as the Yankees’ lineup has proven, someone typically needs to eventually put the ball in play and deliver runs. Pitchers are aware of the Yankees and Hicks’ patience and can use it to their advantage at times. You’ll hear pitchers say time and time again that walks aren’t always a bad thing. If Hicks can even do a better job of picking and choosing when to be aggressive and do damage on pitches that his quick swing is catered towards, then you’ll see those power numbers begin to tick back up. He holds some big keys to the Yankees 2022 season. With a healthy, aggressive Hicks, the Yankees’ projections significantly improve.

Kyle Higashioka

Higgy is the type of hitter who is always going to be changing his stance. Over the years, we’ve seen him adapt his pre-swing setup to get him into the right position before firing off. Some hitters simply operate this way. The setup only matters as much as it’s putting your body in the right position to feel what you’re supposed to feel.

That type of hitter is going to need to understand how certain drills cue different parts of the body. If you’re constantly changing the position your body is in, then it’s even more important to understand what kind of drill work is needed to unlock a specific body part. If you’re going to be a stance chameleon, you better understand what environment you need given the state you’re currently in. Maybe one month, Higgy feels cueing his torso direction towards right field more. Lawson has to be there to help him know what drill or environment is going to stimulate that. These types of hitters are a lot of fun. Hopefully Lawson can empower Higgy to be that ~100 wRC+ figure he’s occasionally flashed.

Without a bit more data when it comes to the players bodies, this is the type of menu we’re limited to if we are to keep things relatively simple. These four hitters all need to get back to what makes them most successful. They’re all talented hitters who could use the guidance of coach like Dillon Lawson to unlock their greater-than-75th-percentile outcomes. If Lawson can get a little more out of these guys, then the Yankees lineup will be vicious. Later this week, we’ll cover the menus for the rest of the Yankees hitters.