After a fourth consecutive rubber-game victory in Wednesday’s matinee, the Yankees’ record stands at 8-4. It’s only the fifth time in the team’s history that they’ve won their first four series of the season. Yet, none have been sweeps — in fact, all of them have been battles, especially the latest matchup against the Guardians that featured a pair of one-run games. Not to mention, two of the Yankees’ top contributors in the early going, DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres, will be leaving Cleveland hobbled.
So for This Week in Statcast (a new series that we’ll begin today), I’ll be focusing on some of the Yankees’ potential fill-ins.
Franchy Cordero: 87% in-zone contact rate
Before this season, Cordero had slashed .221/.290/.386 — an 83 wRC+ — in 726 career plate appearances. Through 27 plate appearances this year, Cordero has mashed four homers and slashed .280/.333/.800 — a 205 wRC+. What gives?
The YES Network announcers posited that Cordero was becoming more selective at the plate, improving his ability to put better pitches in play. But in fact, the slugger has actually regressed in this regard: his 33.3-percent chase rate entering Wednesday was 4.7-percent higher than his career average and his in-zone swing rate was down 3.8 percent.
One figure relating to Cordero’s plate discipline that is moving significantly in the right direction is his contact rate. He’s put bat to ball on 72.2 percent of his swings this year, a 6.5-percent increase over his career average. This improvement has been especially pronounced on pitches in the zone. On strikes, he’s made contact on 87 percent of swings, a 12-percent improvement.
Whether or not Cordero can keep this up remains to be seen. It’s possible that he’s seeing fastballs better, a tangible change that could make some of his in-zone contact rate development sustainable; fastballs do tend to be in the zone after all. Prior to Wednesday’s game — in which he hit his third homer off a fastball this year — he had a .478 weighted on-base average (wOBA, a composite measure of offense on the same scale as OBP) against heaters. Last year, that number was a middling .307.
Here’s what that Wednesday homer looked like:
Yet, even if Cordero’s contact advancements stick, they likely won’t result in the same level of batted-ball success. Entering Wednesday, Cordero’s expected wOBA (based on launch angle and exit velocity) was nearly 100 points lower than his actual wOBA. At the same time, even a 100-point dropoff would still leave the Yankees with a very productive fourth outfielder upon Harrison Bader’s return.
Isiah Kiner-Falefa: -1 Outs Above Average (OAA) at third base
After an impressive spring training, the Yankees gave the starting shortstop job to Anthony Volpe, forcing Isiah Kiner-Falefa into a utility role. The Bombers have certainly stuck by that decision in the early going. While IKF played 1,185 innings at shortstop and just 42 innings at third last year, he’s already played 24 at third and 24 in center field this season, with none coming at short.
Without a wholesale change in plate approach, Kiner-Falefa’s value to the Yankees this year will have to come in the field, as through 19 plate appearances thus far in 2023, IKF has mustered all of two singles. So, the way I see it, his value in the field can come in one of two ways: either through his mastery of a certain position or his versatility.
Could Kiner-Falefa prove most valuable at third, where he’s been playing in the injured Josh Donaldson’s stead? After all, he won a Gold Glove there in 2020, albeit in a 60-game regular season slate. In his career, he’s been worth 17 OAA at third in about a season’s worth of innings (991), nearly on par with last year’s OAA leader at the hot corner, Pittsburgh’s Ke’Bryan Hayes (who had 18).
So far this year though, IKF has looked out of place in that spot, already costing the Yankees one out in aggregate, and that’s without considering his Wednesday error:
Kiner-Falefa did make some good plays earlier in the game Wednesday, but that contest notwithstanding, he’s been successful on five of eight tries when Statcast would have expected him to convert at least six (based on the difficulty level of each opportunity).
Interestingly, Kiner-Falefa has held his own in center, where he played all of 58.1 innings in the minors (the last of which came all the way back in 2017, when Volpe was a rising junior in high school). There, he’s been successful on eight out of nine attempts, pretty much in line with what Statcast would have expected. The Yankees clearly at least have more confidence with him in center than old standby Aaron Hicks, who had yet to see an inning there prior to Wednesday afternoon.
This is something that we’ll have to keep an eye on going forward. I expect Kiner-Falefa to regain his footing at third as he shakes off the rust, and to struggle more in center as he is faced with more difficult opportunities. Aside from his glove, his other attributes — 78th-percentile sprint speed and 35th-percentile infield arm strength last year — don’t portend much success as the captain of the outfield (much less, at third base, but he’s been good before so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt there).
Such is the story of early-season baseball: some will overperform — Cordero — and some will underperform — IKF. But as we shift from spring to summer, expect both of these players, and the Yankees in general, to move towards the mean.