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What does Dillon Lawson’s firing say about the Yankees’ hitting development?

Lawson can take credit for what’s happening in the minors as he takes blame for the majors.

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MLB: New York Yankees at Houston Astros
Dillon Lawson
Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to last season, Dillon Lawson was hired to be the major league hitting coach of the New York Yankees. This, in essence, was a promotion, as Lawson previously held the title of hitting coordinator in their organization since 2018, and his brief time in that role was largely viewed as a success. Along with him as an assistant came Casey Dykes, who had been the hitting coach of the Triple-A Scranton/RailRiders. Neither had major league playing or coaching experience, so the Yankees added Hensley Meulens to the group to offer both. The average length of a major league hitting coach’s time between hiring and firing is 2.4 years. It is the most volatile job in baseball. So as soon as the Yankees put Lawson in their dugout, he was one step closer to being out of the organization.

When Marcus Thames was informed the Yankees were moving on from him after what appeared to be a successful run as hitting coach, Brian Cashman indicated there was a disconnect between the instruction in the minor leagues and what was happening at the big league level. Lawson’s placement was likely an attempt to address that, and, in a larger way, help to solve an issue that has hindered the franchise in recent years. They can’t seem to get hitting prospects to continue developing in the major leagues.

One of the coaches Lawson was involved in hiring prior to his promotion, Joe Migliaccio, replaced him as the hitting coordinator. Sharing similar philosophies and methods, the move from Lawson to Migliaccio did not seem to disrupt the development of the hitters in the minor league system. Using FanGraphs’ weighted runs created plus (wRC+), it is clear that, compared to the other organizations in the league, the Yankees’ minor league hitters are performing well. The Yankees have 31 hitters with a wRC+ north of 100, and that number ties them with the Dodgers and places them right behind the Texas Rangers, who lead all organizations with 33. Of the 15 healthy hitters Baseball America had on their list of the Yankees’ top 30 prospects at mid-season, 13 of them are having above-average years.

Minor league hitting coaches Trevor Amicone (Scranton/Wilkes-Barre), Jake Hirst (Somerset), and Kevin Martir (Hudson Valley) all came on board while Lawson was the coordinator, and he likely had a hand in their hiring. They remain in the organization and will continue to develop hitters in a way that’s more nuanced than most outsiders would guess. From the outside looking in, a fan who thinks the Yankees are too reliant on analytics would think they just chase exit velocity, and while they likely consider that metric very important, it’s only a piece of the puzzle.

In a recent article by SNY’s Andy Martino, Martino reported that “hitters in the Yanks’ system are taught to keep the ball off the ground, preferably on the pull side. They are taught where more damage is done on batted balls, and where power is least effective, typically to dead center field.” Hitting the ball hard in the air to the pull side is an approach arrived upon through study, and it is debatable by fans who may have been raised differently or witnessed another era of baseball where a middle-of-the-field approach was more common. Fans can also expect controlling the strike zone and making good swing decisions to be part of the minor league hitting plan, like it would be at the major league level. The Yankees have to feel pleased that the combined on-base percentage of all their affiliates at the moment is a strong .356, indicating their batters are showing patience when they don’t hit their way on.

What doomed Lawson is not simply contained in the putrid overall performance of the Yankees’ offense in the absence of Aaron Judge. It’s also not an indictment on what he believes about hitting. If part of the motivation for placing him in the major leagues was to smooth the runway for younger hitters, that needs to be validated in the progress of the young hitters. The only inexperienced hitters the Yankees have are Anthony Volpe and Oswaldo Cabrera. Volpe has perhaps shown growing pains beyond what was expected, and Cabrera has gone backwards in a fashion that contrasts starkly with the player we saw at the end of 2022. Beyond that, there is no veteran hitter in the lineup having what most would even consider a good year.

The issue of young hitters failing to transition to the majors and continue developing is in large part at the root of the team they are today. The 2017 Yankees were supposed to be a team in transition. After making the rare decision to trade players at the 2016 deadline, the organization was hoping to stay relevant and free of long-term commitments as they gradually moved in a bevy of young hitters. Gary Sanchez had already burst upon the scene, and Aaron Judge joined him to hit a combined 85 home runs in ‘17. Hopes were high for Greg Bird, Miguel Andújar, Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier, and Dustin Fowler, and they even had potential role players in Tyler Austin, Rob Refsnyder, and Tyler Wade waiting in the wings. That 2017 team lost to the Astros in Game Seven of the ALCS, but hopes were sky high that a new championship window had opened, and it was likely to stay open for a good long while. Six years later, it could be argued that only Judge and Torres fulfilled their potential, and Torres’ performance has regressed after his first two seasons. The Yankees have been continually trying to acquire veterans to hold down the other spots in the lineup.

It’s way too simple to look at this as a failure of the Yankees to graduate hitters and continue their development. Injuries waylaid Bird, Frazier, Fowler, and, to an extent, Andújar, and Sanchez, Refsnyder, and Wade all remain in the league. But what this does illustrate is how difficult it is to get minor league hitting prospects to reach their potential as major league players. It’s really difficult. Like, really, really difficult, and if it wasn’t, more teams would accomplish it. This isn’t just a Yankee problem. Young hitters struggling or fizzling out when they get to the big leagues is an old story.

Hitting today is perhaps more difficult than it’s ever been, and pitching development is significantly outpacing what’s happening with hitters. That excuse won’t be enough to placate fans who want to see results, and they are justified. But it’s an answer the Yankees will have to further seek in the offseason, because the hiring of Sean Casey is about the veterans who need to perform right now. In the meantime, the hitting prospects the Yankees have in their system are creating optimism and having enough success that there can be hope for the future.

This is not to say that everything is fine or that it will be fine. Ultimately, prospects serve two purposes to an organization: either they graduate to become home-grown contributors for your major league team, or they are used in trades for players from other teams. Both are desirable outcomes, but a franchise strikes gold when they can develop their own players since they are (a) less expensive and (b) under team control for years. A team that can produce major league production from its minor league system gains flexibility to then acquire proven veterans to complement the young players and create a winning environment, as the Yankees attempted to do when they brought in Giancarlo Stanton following the 2017 playoff run.

At the moment, it appears the Yankees are only succeeding on one of those fronts. They are helping their hitting prospects develop and become actual prospects, which then makes them viable options in trades. The firing of Dillon Lawson doesn’t change that, just as his hiring did not solve the issue of transitioning young hitters to the big leagues. What the Yankees are doing in the minor leagues with hitting development seems to be working. Now they need to figure out how to make it work in the majors.