Heading into this week’s series against the Twins, the Yankees boast the best record in baseball at 39-15, and while the pitching has been spectacular throughout the season, the Bronx Bombers are also swinging the bats much better than last season. Two key offensive contributors also happen to be regulars who struggled mightily in 2021.
So what explains the resurgences for DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres? The two share one thing in common: they are both punishing opposing fastballs. For Torres, there is more. The young second baseman is also hitting breaking balls better than he has in his career.
2021 vs. fastballs (2&4-seam, sinker, cutter): .337 wOBA, .355 xwOBA, .367 SLG, .386 xSLG
2022 vs fastballs: .364 wOBA, .409 xwOBA, .415 SLG, .505 xSLG
In 2019 and 2020 when DJ was the straw that stirred the Yankee drink, he absolutely feasted on fastballs. In 2020, he put together an eye-popping .456 wOBA versus the heater. The year before, a .371 wOBA. In 2021, as he played through injury, his success against fastballs evaporated, as evidenced by the stats above.
This season, DJ is hitting the fastball, albeit not to the crazy extent he did in 2020. And for what it’s worth, his .386 xwOBA in 2020 was .023 lower than it is so far in 2022. His success is a good thing, as opposing pitchers are throwing DJ a ton of fastballs this season. Just under two-thirds (64.5 percent) of the pitches he has seen have been classified as fastballs by Baseball Savant.
The secret for DJ, especially when he hits fastballs for power? Put simply, he is wearing out right center field and right field, going the opposite way when opposing pitchers leave fastballs over the middle of the plate.
In the first video below, facing southpaw Dallas Keuchel with the bases loaded and a 2-2 count, LeMahieu gets an 86-mph cutter. DJ waits, lets the ball travel in on him, to the point it is middle-in when he hits it, and drives it into the porch in right field for a grand slam. When faced with higher velocity, LeMahieu has successfully used the same approach. In the bottom video, it’s a 96-mph fastball from Garrett Whitlock. Again, DJ hammers it to right field.
All told, six of LeMahieu’s seven extra-base hits (four doubles and three home runs) off opposing fastballs have gone to right center and right field. The only exception was an 88-mph fastball inside that DJ pulled to left field for a home run. If there is one reason for concern so far, it is that LeMahieu’s average exit velocity on fastballs (89.6-mph) is the second-lowest of his career, well below his high as a Yankee (93.6-mph in 2019). Nevertheless, his success so far this season hitting fastballs has catalyzed his offensive output in 2022, as his wRC+ has climbed 18 points from last season.
2021 vs. fastballs: .299 wOBA, .337 xwOBA, .352 SLG, .434 xSLG
2022 vs fastballs: .367 wOBA, .433 xwOBA, .568 SLG, .715 xSLG
Much like LeMahieu, Torres has returned to respectability when it comes to hitting the heater, with outcomes much closer to his 2018 and 2019 seasons rather than the past two campaigns. But Gleyber’s improvement is considerably more drastic, with both his actual and expected outcomes considerably higher in 2022 than in 2021.
Mirroring LeMahieu, Gleyber has worn out right center field and right field when opposing hurlers try to fire fastballs past him, taking pitches out over the plate and driving them to the opposite field.
One thing that stands out with Gleyber is that he has had success to the opposite field against mid-to-high 90s velocity. In the first video below, Gleyber sits back on a 94-mph 0-2 fastball from Blue Jays starter José Berrios that ends up middle-in. Torres is still able to elevate it to right field with power, resulting in a three-run home run. More recently, against the Angels on June 2nd, Torres ambushed a 97-mph first pitch fastball from Shohei Ohtani and hammered it to right field for a solo home run.
Torres has also hit fastballs for power to the pull side, especially recently. Three of his four most recent XBH on fastballs have gone to left field, but it is important to note that he is still staying back, with two of the three hit to left-center rather than down the line to left. And regardless of where Torres hits fastballs, he is hitting them hard. His 94.5-mph average exit velocity on fastballs is a full three points above his previous career high from 2019.
It is possible that opposing teams have picked up that Torres is finding a lot of success against fastballs in 2022. Thus far, only 51.6 percent of the pitches he has seen have been fastballs, down 4.9 points from 2021, and the lowest frequency of his career. And that makes his second outcome — hitting the breaking ball — even more important.
2021 vs breaking balls (slider, curve, knuckle, other): .327 wOBA, .323 xwOBA, .391 SLG, .401 xSLG
2022 vs breaking balls: .360 wOBA, .364 xwOBA, .492 SLG, .489 xSLG
Torres’ improvement against breaking balls is less drastic than against fastballs, but in a season when opposing pitchers are throwing him more breaking balls than ever before (36.4 percent in 2022), his ability to hit them for power might become increasingly important. Thus far, Gleyber has been particularly good against opponents’ sliders, with all of his XBH on breaking balls coming on sliders.
Torres has mostly driven fastballs to right field this season, but he has primarily done the opposite against sliders in 2022. Although he has shown the ability to drive breaking balls to right field, for the most part, left-center field and left field have been Gleyber’s destinations.
In the first video, Torres waits on an 84-mph slider down, and hammers it into the left-center field gap for a bases-clearing triple. Here, staying back allows him to stay in the big part of the field, rather than perhaps pulling the pitch foul. In the second video, Gleyber shows he can do likewise with sliders at higher velocity. Facing Rays starter Shane McClanahan, Torres gets an 89-mph slider middle-in and does not miss it, crushing a solo home run to left field.
Like with fastballs, Torres is hitting breaking balls of all stripes harder this season than before. The increase in his average exit velocity on breaking balls really stands out. Before 2022, Torres’ high water mark was 85.8-mph in his 2019 sophomore season. That number slumped all the way to 81-mph last season. In 2022, it has soared almost 10 points, with Gleyber hitting breaking balls to an average exit velocity of 90.2-mph.
Even with Aaron Judge having an otherworldly season (see Josh’s recent writeup on our favorite slugger) and the returns of Josh Donaldson and Giancarlo Stanton to the lineup, DJ and Gleyber will remain important to the Yankees’ offensive success as the club moves forward.
If they can continue to hold the improvement they have shown against fastballs, and if Gleyber can continue to hit breaking balls while he’s seeing more of them than ever before, there is good reason to believe the two infielders can continue to help make the Yankees lineup a deep and formidable one.