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Volpe’s batting stance changes could help his plate coverage

How a dinner with teammates turned the young shortstop’s season around.

New York Yankees v Oakland Athletics Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

It’s amazing what a tasty plate of chicken parm can do for one’s season.

A few weeks back, Gary Phillips of the New York Daily News reported on a team dinner Anthony Volpe had with Austin Wells and a few other of his former minor league teammates. They ate chicken parm and rewatched old clips of ABs in the minors. And it was during this meal and reminiscing that a lightbulb went off in Volpe’s head. Without realizing it, he had been developing “bad habits” that took him away from his old setup.

Since that meal, Volpe has been the Yankees’ most productive hitter. The stretch could not have come at a better time with the other bats floundering around him in the lineup as the team tries to tread water in Aaron Judge’s absence. Today, I’d like to investigate how the mechanical changes have yielded these improved results, but first it might be productive to recap the path that has taken the Yankees’ top prospect to this point.

Anthony Volpe’s season can be broken down into three distinct sections. He experienced initial success after being named the starting shortstop out of the spring training competition. Then came a miserable month-and-a-half stretch in which Volpe was the worst qualified hitter in baseball. Finally, the fateful dinner that not only snapped him out of his slump but vaulted him far beyond the results from his encouraging April.

Volpe was immediately productive from his debut on Opening Day, stoking the optimism fans felt upon his being named the starting shortstop. Through his first 25 games, he was slashing .228/.358/.354 with two home runs, a 16.8 percent walk rate, a perfect 8-for-8 in stolen bases and a 107 wRC+.

Then came the prolonged slump through all of May and the first half of June. Starting with the four-game series at Texas and ending with the home series against the Red Sox, Volpe’s triple slash line stood at an ugly .163/.200/.340. The walk rate had shriveled to 3.9 percent while the strikeout rate skyrocketed to 31.6 percent — the highest mark on the team during that stretch by some margin.

Cue the magical Italian meal on the team’s June 12th off-day that literally may have saved the rookie’s season. From June 13th on, Volpe leads the team with a 167 wRC+ and 1.0 fWAR. The walk rate rebounded to 9.1 percent while he tamed the strikeouts down to a 24.7 percent clip.

At the nadir of Volpe’s late-spring slide, Daniel R. Epstein of Baseball Prospectus investigated the opening chapters of the book the league was writing on the young shortstop. He found that pitchers were exploiting two zones — middle-in and up-and-away — and that Volpe’s mechanics had regressed to the point that he could “make loud contact [only] when he gets his just-right pitch.” To Volpe’s credit, he recognized the deficits in his mechanics and got to work fixing them.

I spot four distinct changes to Volpe’s setup pre- and post-chicken parm dinner. His stance is more closed, he’s standing closer to the plate, he’s positioned deeper in the batter’s box, and his bat is closer to horizontal at approach. Esteban already covered the shift to a more closed stance — commenting on how it could serve as a proprioceptive cue to not stride open (step in the bucket) so drastically during his swing — which should allow him to cut down on the whiffs against sliders away. The only thing I would add to his analysis is that a more closed stance allows Volpe to cover fastballs on the other half provided he stays with an up-the-middle to opposite-field approach against those pitches.

I can think of a handful of ways these mechanical adjustments to batting stance can manifest improved results. Standing closer to the plate should allow him better plate coverage on pitches away. Standing deeper in the box gives him a split-second longer to see and read the pitch. The adjustment to bat orientation gives it a slightly shorter path to reach the zone — again giving him that extra bit longer before making a swing decision — and should create a flatter path through the hitting zone.

As such, I would expect to see an improvement on his contact rate against pitches away, a decrease in his overall chase rate as he gains those extra milliseconds of time to make a swing decision, and I’d expect to see an increase in opposite field rate and line drive rate. Contrary to my prediction, his contact rate on outer-half pitches and overall chase rate both got worse, however he has seen massive gains in the type of contact he is making. His line drive rate went from 18.4 percent during the skid to 30.6 percent post-June 12th while his opposite field rate jumped from 20.2 percent to 31.4 percent.

Now to some visuals. First, let’s take a look at how pitchers were pitching him right out of the gate — likely with limited data on his strengths, tendencies, etc. — and the swing, contact, and slugging results produced.

Courtesy of FanGraphs
Courtesy of FanGraphs
Courtesy of FanGraphs
Courtesy of FanGraphs

Next, I wondered if pitchers are attacking him differently now that his bat has started to heat up again.

Courtesy of FanGraphs

Interestingly, there’s a subtle increase in pitches over the middle, but nothing massive which makes me a bit more confident that his gains are down to the mechanical adjustments rather than a change in pitchers’ game plans.

Courtesy of FanGraphs
Courtesy of FanGraphs
Courtesy of FanGraphs

You can see Volpe is now targeting elevated pitches out over the plate. He’s making less contact, but it’s more meaningful contact. Perhaps standing on top of the plate is deterring pitchers from pitching him in, causing a few more balls to leak into his happy zone.

Finally, let’s wrap up with some video of the improvements against pitches in the up-and-away and middle-in dead zones. Here’s a whiff on fastball up-and-away against Oakland on May 10th:

He’s in flat-out pull mode and the abrupt opening of his front side causes his bat to lag through the zone. That’s how you can be late on a 91 mph fastball.

Contrast that with this single at Oakland on June 27th:

He sees the ball a fraction longer on its path to the plate, allowing him to stay behind the baseball and fire a simple swing up the middle.

Then there’s this strikeout on May 8th against the A’s:

Not pretty.

Facing a similarly-located pitch on June 28th, Volpe is able to inside-out it for a double.

The difference is night and day. In addition to the double being a far more balanced swing, he’s able to stay inside the baseball while still driving it with power into the opposite field gap for a double.

The Yankees have been a rather miserable watch since Aaron Judge went down with a toe injury in the first week of June. Among the many lowlights, a lone bright spot on offense has been Anthony Volpe’s resurgence in the box. One of the hallmarks of a successful baseball player is the ability to make adjustments — the league will find your weak spots and expose them. The best players adjust back to the league which is why it is so heartening to see the tweaks Volpe made to his stance paying off.