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Why can’t the Yankees hit pitches down the middle?

The offense goes cold when guys stop punishing mistakes.

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

The Yankees just wrapped up their sixth-straight series win with a 1-0 nail-biter over the Rangers. Normally this would be cause for celebration, but one can’t help but feel somewhat unfulfilled by their recent performances. And it’s all down to the offense.

The bats looked downright rusty through the first four series of the season. The team squeaked its way to a 7-6 record, getting shutout three times during that 13-game stretch. Then, as if on cue, the offense exploded into life starting with the series against the Guardians. They rattled off 11 consecutive wins, scoring double-digits four times. But just as quickly as the bats came alive during that stretch did they again go silent, starting with the final game in Toronto.

In the games since, only their stellar pitching has allowed them to win contests, and even that is a tenuous strategy. I don’t care how dominant your pitching is, going four-game stretches scoring one run, two runs, two runs, and one run is not a sustainable long-term model for success. It’s not like they didn’t have their opportunities during those games, but to the eye it appeared that too often they failed to punish the pitcher when he made a mistake. So I had to investigate — why does the Yankees offense go MIA for stretches at a time, and why does it feel like it’s tied to their performance against pitches right down the middle?

Before the season, new hitting coach Dillon Lawson summarized his offensive philosophy in three easy words: “Hit strikes hard.” Seems simple enough, but within those three words lies a good deal of information.

It emphasizes controlling the zone — I hope we can all agree by now that it’s better to swing at pitches in the strike zone than out of the strike zone. It emphasizes making good swing decisions — once you’ve identified a pitch as a strike, are you able to pull the trigger and do your mechanics facilitate making contact? And finally, it emphasizes doing damage when impacting a strike — you’re only going to get maybe one or two good pitches to hit in a plate appearance, so you better make the most of your opportunity.

How well are the Yankees adhering to this philosophy? Do they perform best when following Lawson’s ideology and slump when they get away from that plan? For this exercise, I decided to break the credo “hit strikes hard” into its component parts and compare the Yankees’ performance from the 11-game winning streak to their performance in the games that preceded and followed the streak.

First, are the Yankees swinging at strikes? However, I felt that was too broad. After all, not all strikes are created equal. Not all strikes are good pitches to swing at. A backdoor sinker that nips the edge of the zone likely won’t yield favorable outcomes should the batter swing. So, I decided to narrow “strikes” to pitches in the “Heart” attack region (something I will explain below).

Second, are the Yankees making contact when they swing at pitches in the “Heart” region? Third, are they doing damage when they make contact with those pitches? And finally, how does their performance against those pitches stack up against the rest of the league?

Before we get into the analysis, I have to qualify that I expanded the definition of “pitch down the middle” to pitches in the “Heart” region as defined by Statcast (for sample size purposes). Basically these are pitches that are fully in the zone — pitches that are always called strikes if the batter takes. They’re the pitches shown in the white region below — pitches that are easiest to do damage on.

Starting off with swinging at strikes, in the 13 games before the winning streak, the Yankees swung at 68.2 percent of pitches in the Heart zone — the third-lowest rate in MLB. During the streak, that number jumped to 74.5 percent — ninth-highest in MLB. Then in the games since the streak: 68.7 percent — fifth-lowest in MLB. It appears the Yankees are at their best when they swing frequently at good pitches to hit.

Next, let’s look at contact rate. Pre-winning streak, the Yankees’ contact rate on pitches in the Heart zone stood at 82.9 percent — eighth-worst in MLB. During the streak, their contact rate against those pitches rose slightly to 84.6 percent — still in the bottom-third of the league. The contact rate remained at 84.5 percent post-streak, just about middle of the pack. Not much to see here, the difference in contact rates isn’t all that significant.

So if the contact rate remained relatively stable, what about the quality of contact? Pre-streak, the Yankees barreled pitches in the Heart zone at a 13.1 percent clip per batted ball event — sixth-best in MLB. During the streak, that rate leapt to 19.4 percent — second-best in baseball. In the games since, it has tailed off to 14.3 percent — falling back to ninth-best. So while they have remained in the upper-third of the league all season, there is a clear correlation between the winning streak and punishing mistake pitches.

Finally, let’s look at overall offensive potency against pitches down the middle. Before the streak, the Yankees carried a .385 xwOBA against pitches in the Heart zone — good for 17th place. During the streak, the team xwOBA skyrocketed to .531 against pitches in the Heart zone — by far the best mark in MLB. In the few games since, they’ve seen it regress to .415 — still good for eleventh-best in the majors but a far-cry from their performance during the winning streak.

Thus we have the most compelling piece of evidence that the Yankees’ offensive effectiveness is tied strongly to their performance against mistake pitches. And it appears that the biggest drivers of their slumping periods include taking too many hittable pitches for strikes and not doing damage when making contact on said pitches.

I can see how complaining about the Yankees offense when the team just completed their sixth straight series win can come off as ... spoiled. However, we wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we stopped viewing the team through a critical lens when the going got good. The Bombers’ bats can turn from hot to cold and vice versa in an instant, and it appears it’s as simple as the ability to do damage on pitches down the middle.