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Jake Bauers’ swing changes are paying off

The outfielder is catching up to fastballs and driving them consistently for the first time in his career.

MLB: Game One-Chicago White Sox at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees have shown a real affinity for lightning-in-a-bottle left-handed-hitting minor league depth signings, last year successfully with Matt Carpenter and this year less successfully with others like Franchy Cordero. It makes sense — sign guys who are known commodities and hope they figure something out or catch fire for a short stretch while the starters return from injury. Of course, the Yankees probably won’t be running out guys like Jake Bauers, Willie Calhoun, and Billy McKinney the whole season, so all they need is a two-week spurt of offense.

Bauers has provided an above-average bat and solid defense. Any offense while Aaron Judge and Harrison Bader are on the IL is welcome — especially a two-home-run game against the Dodgers. Yankees fans didn’t envision an outfield of Bauers/McKinney/Calhoun for any extended period of time, but without Judge and Bader, the three fringe major leaguers were pressed into service and have mostly performed admirably. Needless to say, a 114 wRC+ from a Triple-A injury call-up is excellent and Bauers has turned the most heads. With Oswaldo Cabrera struggling, left field quickly became an offensive black hole until Bauers got his shot.

He’s also made a few acrobatic catches in the field, passing the eye test, but also posts above-average marks in both outfielder jump and arm strength. Currently he sits at 0.3 UZR in left field and breaks even in most fielding metrics.

Bauers has done his job in pinstripes so far and his offense is especially encouraging. His swing changes are bearing real fruit — Malachi wrote in-depth about his swing path and contact results, so now that some time has gone by I’ll be pulling some examples where we can see these observations quantified in his at-bats. Malachi first observed Bauers’ change in launch angle and the shortening of his swing path. Bauers did this presumably in an effort to catch up to fastballs as Malachi said, so let’s take a look at where those changes have yielded results.

Bauers dunked a huge two-run single into center field off Max Scherzer at Citi Field on Tuesday. The pitch was a well-located fastball up and in, but the swing path is short enough to muscle it into the outfield. It didn’t light up the exit velo radar gun, but against a pitcher like Scherzer, it doesn’t have to be pretty.

Before this year, Bauers struggled to hit fastballs with authority. The quicker, shorter swing as a result of tightening of his hands toward his body is noticeably less loopy and it’s come in handy against velocity. In 2021 he posted a .373 xSLG on fastballs and that number has shot up to a .468 xSLG this season.

This 95 mph fastball against the Mariners isn’t on the corner, but isn’t located poorly either. Bauers impressively pulls his hands in and drives an extra base hit 100mph off the bat the other way. This swing from a lefty on an inside pitch is, at the risk of hyperbolizing, Juan Soto-esque.

Malachi also observed that Bauers got beat in years past on elevated fastballs because of his steep launch angle. With a long swing, extreme launch angle, and not enough power to support it, he was a pop-up machine on anything with velocity up in the zone. So far in 2023, he’s closed that hole in his swing.

The swing changes are getting results — Bauers is hitting the high pitch harder than he ever has. Take a look at his average exit velocity by zone in 2021, paying special attention to the top three quadrants of the strike zone.

That’s a lot of weak contact on some very hittable pitches. In 2023, Bauers has flipped the script in all areas but especially up in the zone:

He’s even tagging pitches up out of the zone into the mid-90s in exit velo. I think it’s safe to say he now feels comfortable with that pitch.

Bauers arguably has the best shot to stick on this roster out of the recent call-ups. The organization may well have unlocked something for the former first-round pick, and he’s hitting at easily the most torrid clip of his career. Bauers doesn’t get beat on velocity up high like he did in years past, and the hole in his swing has by all accounts closed.