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Helping Anthony Volpe out of his mini-slump

Grand slam notwithstanding, the Yankees’ prized rookie has run into a bump in the road of late.

Cleveland Guardians v New York Yankees Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

It’s amazing what a series against a Triple-A team can do for an offense’s confidence. You still have to go out and win those games, and that’s exactly what the Yankees did to Oakland, scoring 28 runs in three days. While I’m not ready to declare the offense “back” quite yet, it’s certainly some positive momentum to carry into a critical series against the Rays.

One player who didn’t quite experience the offensive outburst that many of his teammates did was Anthony Volpe. He went 2-for-14 on the series, though I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t mention how impactful those two were. First came a triple in the middle game. Then, the pièce de résistance, a fifth-inning grand slam to become the youngest Bomber to ever hit one at any version of Yankee Stadium. All the same, he didn’t have anything else to show against what is head and shoulders the worst pitching staff in baseball.

This slight hiccup is part of a larger 13-game sample that has seen the rookie’s production slip a bit after appearing to find his footing in the second-half of April. Dating back to the series opener against the Rangers, Volpe is 9-for-53 with a 31 wRC+, the worst mark on the team during that stretch.

In those 13 games, Volpe has walked only twice in 55 plate appearances, producing a 3.6 percent walk rate. In the two weeks preceding April 27th, Volpe was walking at well over a 20 percent clip, producing a 162 wRC+. From the end of that hot streak until now, Volpe has seen his chase rate rise six points and his overall swing rate jump almost 10 points. All of this has combined to sink his on-base percentage to .200 since that Texas series. There’s no mincing words here, that is an unsustainably low OBP from your leadoff hitter.

There are knock-on effects from this downturn in plate discipline. For one, pitchers don’t have to work as hard — during his hot streak, he was averaging 4.3 pitches per plate appearance, with 7.2 percent of those pitches coming in a full count. In the 13 games since, those rates have dropped to 3.4 and 2.9 percent respectively. The more pitches a pitcher throws in a plate appearance, the more liable he is to make a mistake. Additionally, fewer pitches seen means less opportunity for his teammates to see pitch shapes and suss out the pitcher’s approach.

It is for these reasons that I believe it would be most beneficial to all parties if the Yankees temporarily removed Volpe from the leadoff spot. Perhaps he put a bit too much pressure on himself to produce in Aaron Judge’s absence, and in doing so threw his batter’s eye off-track. Three candidates stand out to replace him: Anthony Rizzo, DJ LeMahieu, and Harrison Bader. Rizzo would be my pick as he leads qualified hitters on the team with a .385 OBP. Bader meanwhile has been thriving in a run production role further down the lineup and it’s probably best that he stays there.

All this being said, there’s still a lot that Volpe is doing right, even if the results aren’t quite showing up. His 45.2 percent hard-hit rate during the mini-slump places him in the 72nd percentile of hitters with at least 10 batted balls over that span. As my colleague Esteban astutely noted in the PSA Slack channel, “Volpe is so close to barreling everything, he’s always just missing.”

He will have a far more detailed analysis on why this might be in the coming weeks, but for now I’d like to corroborate his statements with some visual evidence. Here is a histogram of Volpe’s batted balls, sorted into bins by launch angle:

Compare that with a histogram of Gleyber Torres’ batted balls, sorted by into bins by launch angle:

The two teammates have effectively identical average launch angles (right around 16 degrees), but take different paths to getting there. Gleyber’s histogram is pretty idealized — you want gently sloping sides on either end of the curve with a defined peak centered right around the average. In Volpe’s case, we can see exactly what Esteban is talking about. He has multiple peaks on either end of a valley centered on the average — in other words he’s getting just underneath or just on top of the baseball, missing the barrel by fractions.

The strongest credit to Volpe is that through his early struggles, uptick in form, and subsequent mini-slump, he’s maintained an even keel throughout, displaying a maturity far in excess of his years and experience. He understands that there are times when the hits refuse to fall and that in those moments all you can do is trust the process and enjoy the grind. I have no doubt that with this mindset, Volpe will be back to producing top-of-the-order production sooner rather than later.