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Jake Bauers’ bat is here to stay

The sample size is getting bigger, and Bauers keeps improving his approach.

MLB: Houston Astros at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

At a time when the Yankees’ offense has fallen off a cliff, Jake Bauers’ steadily above-average bat has entrenched him in the leadoff spot for the time being. When Billy McKinney cooled off, the Aaron Judge-less outfield was inept at the plate along with most everyone else. And while Harrison Bader is a perfectly average bat, he lacks the thump of an authoritative outfield bat.

However, with Judge out, Bauers kept hitting at a solid clip as other outfield options like McKinney and the since-demoted Oswaldo Cabrera struggled. Peripherally, his positive trends are sustainably backed up by his metrics. His average exit velocity is up to 90.9 mph, the best mark of his career. His 90.6-mph mark on breaking balls is a monumental improvement from his first 1,000-ish big-league at-bats.

Cumulatively this season, Bauers is up to a 122 wRC+ even accounting for a fairly slow start while adjusting to pinstripes. A couple months ago, the 27-year-old hit his stride to harness the talent that made him such a highly-regarded prospect back in 2017-18 with the Rays. At that point in mid-June, I wrote about Bauers’ previous propensity to whiff on velocity up in the zone and the swing changes he’s made to fix it. His long lefty swing didn’t get it done against elite velocity, and other teams knew it. We’ve already covered the intricacies of his approach and results against fastballs, so let’s talk breaking balls.

Here’s a strikeout against familiar sidewinding righty Andrew Kittredge in 2021. Bauers loses his lower half almost immediately and rushes his hands to generate power. By that point, he’s committed and lunges at the curveball way out of the zone.

The lefty-swinging Bauers mostly gets opportunities against righties. He hit for almost no power despite his swing path prioritizing launch angle — his slugging percentage hovered around .280 in 245 plate appearances against right-handers in 2021.

Bauers always had the prototypical long lefty swing, and he’s always been pull-happy, but his approach and balance are undeniably sharper in 2023. His .512 slugging percentage is no joke — the power is real, and the synchronicity of his weight transfer is worlds better.

In 87 plate appearances since June 15th, Bauers has an excellent .885 OPS and 139 wRC+. He did miss 12 games with a shoulder injury on an errant dive, but he got back on the field quickly and along with Gleyber Torres and more recently Giancarlo Stanton, Bauers is one of the few regulars who has seen his performance tick up in the dog days of late summer. That production is due in no small part to his refined approach against the soft stuff. Manager Aaron Boone has granted Bauers a tremendous vote of confidence by penciling him into the leadoff spot most days as more than a platoon option burgeoning on everyday player.

Bauers’ whiff rate of 34.3 percent on breaking balls this year is still troubling, but down from 35.9 percent in 2021. But in his recent hot streak, he’s been keeping his weight back and punishing breakers. Most recently in that rubber match against the rival Astros yesterday, Bauers further endeared himself to Yankees fans with a clutch home run for the second consecutive day. He got a hanging breaking ball from Justin Verlander and didn’t miss it.

In his 24 games since June 15th, Bauers has also struck out 31 percent of the time, contributing to the lack of contact up and down the Yankees lineup. This aspect of his game hasn’t been ideal of course, but power lefty bats tend to strike out and there’s no way around it. He’s not your prototypical leadoff hitter: he rocks just a .310 on-base percentage in those 87 plate appearances. With that being said, a .575 slugging percentage plays anywhere in the lineup.

Bauer is now both covering the high fastball and sharpening his eye on diving breaking balls. Pre-2023 Bauers swung at way too many fastballs above the zone, and given his long swing, it wasn’t pretty. His approach changed, and his results changed. Credit to the coaching staff amid a season of failures elsewhere for unlocking the potential of a player who multiple teams gave up on.

Bauers will be an integral cog in the Yankees lineup for the stretch run, especially since he can cover first base with Anthony Rizzo out indefinitely. In a close playoff race, the former Top-100 prospect’s bat will be sorely needed.