Entering the 2015 season, Yankees fans had reason to be very worried about the middle of the lineup. First baseman Mark Teixeira was coming off a 2013 season lost to wrist problems and a 2014 campaign mired in mediocrity. Rather than compromise on his extreme pull-hitting tendencies, Tex decided to double down and go for more doubles and home runs. His stubbornness annoyed a lot of fans at the time, but it has resulted in a wRC+ of 147.
So how has he done it? Here is the exact quote he gave to reporters just before spring training, courtesy of NJ.com:
On Wednesday, Teixeira said he had a plan to beat the shift. But it wasn't the most conventional approach. "Hit more home runs, hit more doubles, and walk more," the first baseman told reporters in the George M. Steinbrenner Field clubhouse.
In short, he has stayed true to his word. A hitter can have all of the physical strength and bat speed in the world, but if he cannot square the ball up on a regular basis, he will struggle at the big league level. In 2014, Tex hit 186 balls to his pull side. Only 10.7% of them were fly balls that left the infield. This season, that number is up to 25.3%.
As it turns out, a lot of power hitters struggle because they cannot seem to lift the ball when they pull it. Pittsburgh's Pedro Alvarez is a great example of this phenomenon. The second overall pick in 2008, Alvarez has the third highest percentage of hits with an exit velocity of 100 mph or greater, according to Baseball Savant. However, he has hit a flyball on just 15.3% of the balls he has pulled. Being in a pitcher-friendly environment like PNC Park doesn't help his case out very much, as his career wRC+ is just 106.
Then there are hitters like Houston's Chris Carter. 20% of the balls he pulled last year were flyballs, but he also had a strikeout rate north of 31%. As a result, he was able to hit 37 home runs, but his .227 batting average weighed his overall production down. With this in mind, I tried to quantify a hitter's ability to drive the ball to the pull side of the field. Here is what I looked at:
pOFB% = Outfield flyball % on balls hit to the pull side
Pull-Contact Score (PCS) = pOFB% - Swinging Strike %
"Pull-Contact Score" is a working title. Here are the top five qualified hitters this year by PCS:
Both Tex and teammate Brian McCann are in the top five. But a hitter's PCS might be able to forecast the future performance of power hitters. In 2008, Tex's contract year, he had a PCS of 10%. In 2010, Phillies slugger Ryan Howard signed what is now an extremely unpopular extension for $125 million. That year, his Pull-Contact Score was in the negatives.
Mark Teixeira will not be the last high-profile power hitter the Yankees target. The short porch in right field will always attract hitters looking to pull the ball into the bleachers. The Yankees need to have a reliable method of forecasting their production as they enter their mid-to-late 30's and their bat speed and coordination decline. Looking at their current roster might be a good place to start.
*Unless stated otherwise, data is from FanGraphs.