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Yankees’ 2023 first impressions, Statcast style

One week in, early-season storylines are becoming clearer.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at New York Yankees
Healthier than he’s been each of the past two years, DJ LeMahieu is hitting the ball as hard as ever. This swing became a double against the Phillies yesterday.
Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees moved to 4-2 with an afternoon victory yesterday, their second rubber-game win in as many series. For a squad with a lengthy injured list that might soon include Josh Donaldson, who’s dealing with a hamstring issue, it’s been a strong start. A big reason why is that a few players — including DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, and Jhony Brito — have stepped up in the stead of the wounded. Statcast can provide us with some insights into how exactly they’ve managed to do so.

DJ LeMahieu: 93.8 mph average exit velocity

It’s no secret that LeMahieu himself has been plagued by injuries over the past two years. Whether it was a sports hernia or a toe fracture, his numbers were depleted as he tried to fight through pain: after putting up 136 and 177 wRC+ marks in his first two seasons in pinstripes (2019 and 2020), those numbers fell to 100 and 116 over his next two.

However, the 34-year-old reported to camp healthy this spring, successfully avoiding surgery on the toe. If you didn’t believe that the veteran was 100 percent at first, you might just have to now, as he’s been on an absolute tear to start the regular season. Across 22 plate appearances, LeMahieu has slashed .300/.364/.650, good for a 171 wRC+.

And the exit velocity numbers seem to back this up. On the season, the utilityman is averaging 93.8 mph off the bat, which would easily beat his previous career-high of 91.9 (set back in that excellent 2019 showing). What’s more, LeMahieu isn’t just pounding these screamers into the ground: he’s already barreled two of his 13 balls in play, good for a 15.4 percent mark. His previous best, also set in 2019, was a 7.0 percent rate.

Additionally, his groundball rate, at 30.8 percent, is leagues below his previous low of 49.6 percent, and he’s yet to popup. That’s led to some other well-struck balls that don’t quite classify as barrels, including this double from yesterday (which had barrel-level exit velo but not a high-enough launch angle):

Gleyber Torres: 23.5 Percent Barrel Rate

If you were impressed by LeMahieu’s ability to find the sweet spot thus far, Torres really takes the cake in that regard. While he’s had his fair share of mis-hits, bringing his average exit velo down to 88.8 mph, when he’s been on, boy has he been on.

This represents a continuation of last season, a year in which Torres set a career-high in barrel rate at 10.7 percent. He’s on track to more than double that mark, and while his torrid pace (he’s currently slashing .421/.560/.789) will likely settle down as we trudge on through the long season, there are certainly signs that he could notch his best barrel rate for a second year in a row.

Namely, Torres has been going oppo more often, something that his swing is particularly geared towards. He’s hit eight of 17 balls in play to the right side, pulled three, and knocked the other six up the middle. His 47.1 and 35.3 percent oppo and middle rates would be career highs, while his 17.6 pull rate would easily mark a career low.

Jhony Brito: fastball-changeup combo

Perhaps the most surprising injury fill-in, Jhony Brito dominated the Giants over five innings on Sunday — he tossed five scoreless innings, yielding just two hits and a walk against six strikeouts. His nasty changeup was primarily responsible, as the Giants whiffed on half of their 22 swings against the offering.

What makes Brito’s changeup so good? For one, it looks very similar to his fastballs. His four-seamer, sinker, and change are all spun around pretty much the same axis — the differences lie in the grips and seam orientations. The chart below shows the directions his pitches are expected to move based on their spin axes (which are perpendicular to the movement vectors shown):

While his changeup and fastballs move similarly on the horizontal plane, his changeup drops and his fastballs rise. Below is a two-pitch sequence example. Ultimately, Brandon Crawford swung and missed at a sinking changeup:

But the whiff was really set up by a rising fastball on the previous pitch:

Overall, the Yankees seem to have already answered some key questions. LeMahieu can still perform when healthy, Torres’ bat does still have some of the pop that made him a top prospect, and the Yankees’ pitching depth can withstand injuries to not one, not two, but three top starters despite the exodus of most of their premier minor league arms during last season’s trade deadline. Whether LeMahieu will remain healthy is another story, as is whether Torres can withstand inevitable pitching adjustments to his new approach and whether Brito can continue to hold his own in the majors (much less stay healthy himself). But all told, I’d call the Yankees’ first week of games a success.