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Billy McKinney’s laser show

The outfielder is working against modern trends and spraying line drives all over the field.

MLB: New York Yankees at Chicago White Sox Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees took a shot on several fringe major-leaguers this year, to varying degrees of success. Jake Bauers and Billy McKinney, both former first-round picks, have been bang-up reclamation projects for Aaron Boone and the coaching staff. Both have unexpectedly held down mostly everyday outfield duties, at least against right-handed starting pitchers.

McKinney’s modest breakout year has some signs of being sustainable. Results-based stats check all the boxes of an above-average offensive contributor. McKinney carries a 108 wRC+ in 123 plate appearances, and an 111 wRC+ since the All-Star Break. Not a star, but the kind of quality production that helps fill out a lineup in the spots after Aaron Judge. The six through nine spots have been a veritable black hole for this team and share blame with most everyone else not named Torres, Judge, or Bauers for the plodding second half of 2023.

Really, it’s a simple problem for this offensive attack. Judge can and will take ball four over and over, as he should, but the guys behind him have to knock him in. A lineup with a neutralized Judge and no support is a bleak outlook, and teams are doing their best to take the bat out of his hands. He has ten walks in nine games in August. Other pitching staffs can implement a simple game plan and get away with it against this team — just don’t pitch to the big guy — if the Yankees don’t have enough competent hitters behind Judge to make them pay.

Like Bauers, McKinney doesn’t get on base a whole lot, with a .312 on-base percentage this season. Interestingly, he has a .378 mark in the second half — if he qualified, that’d be top-20 in MLB. If he could keep that up or even close to that mark, he’ll most likely stick on the roster this offseason.

He’s tweaked his approach and swing decisions significantly, as Andrés wrote about, and that trend has continued into the second half. For these purposes, let’s focus on batted balls and quality of contact to quantify these changes.

He boasts an excellent 14.3 percent barrel rate, almost double his previous career high. By comparison, DJ LeMahieu currently has a 5.4 percent barrel rate. Doubling one’s barrel rate is more than an adjustment; it’s a game changer, one that changes the floor and ceiling a player’s game. His .503 xSLG is another eye-popping number — like Bauers, he’s showing legit power. McKinney does strike out a lot, but almost everyone in this lineup including Judge does, and it’s hard to fault a player when swings and misses are accompanied by plenty of barreled balls.

What’s behind that ascending barrel rate? Let’s peruse launch angle, perhaps, and we may come to a shocking conclusion. After posting an average launch angle around 18 degrees in his career, he’s down to 11 degrees this year, another abnormally large change annually. Normally a lower launch angle is illustrated by a decrease in extra base hits and home runs, but McKinney’s .503 xSLG would beg to differ.

Here’s a weak pop up (to Gio Urshela!) on a center-cut fastball from 2022:

The pitch isn’t elevated all that much; in fact, it’s a cookie. McKinney still drops his hands and pops it up, badly beaten on a hittable pitch at below-average velocity in the strike zone.

I actually want to point to an opposite-field single rather than an extra-base hit as the clearest example of McKinney’s leveled swing path.

It may look like it on this swing, but McKinney is not becoming a slap hitter; he’s pulling the ball more than ever, spraying line drives all over the field with plenty of authority. This pitch was 93 mph, and his shorter, straighter path to the ball gets his bat through the zone in plenty of time to line it to left field.

It may still be hold the horses time about McKinney — less than 150 at-bats is within the margin of a fickle hot streak, but these are seismic changes to his process. He’s becoming a fundamentally different hitter and could keep reaping the rewards of his improved line-drive swing down the stretch and beyond. If anything, he’s been a small silver lining in a season of mostly darkness for the Yankees.