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The Yankees have been too passive at the plate in 2016

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The Yankees appear to have confused patience and passiveness at the plate, and it could be a root of their early offensive struggles.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

One of the defining characteristics of this decade's Yankees is age, and this is far from a good thing. A team of veterans is more vulnerable to injuries, slow speed, poor defense, fatigue, and worse performance overall. While the Yankees' lineup isn't composed purely of 35-year olds, their older age has shown in 2016.

Yet there is a positive side to age. Although veterans have typically regressed in most facets of the game, it isn't rare to see plate discipline remain constant, or even improve. Many recent Yankee rosters have shown remarkable patience, though this habit may have gone too far this season.

A fine line exists between being patient and being passive, one the Yankees teetered on last season. A patient hitter shows quality pitch recognition and selection, offering on the right ones but staying put on others. A passive hitter is one who rarely lifts the bat off their shoulder, whether it be a hittable pitch or not. The Yankees and their 42.5% swing rate, second lowest in baseball, appear to have fallen into passive territory.

When critiquing plate discipline this year, certain experts have been quick to point towards the Yankees 24.7% o-swing rate, or the rate of swings on pitches outside the strike zone. This percentage is third best in baseball and certainly is helpful. However, some have failed to mention a 63.4% swing rate on pitches inside the zone—third worst in baseball. The Yankees aren't just refusing to offer at bad pitches; they are not swinging much in general.

While the team seems to have fallen headlong into the passive side of plate approach, it isn't all bad news. Hitters are making contact 88.9% of the time, second best in baseball. Of course, with more contact comes fewer whiffs, so it isn't shocking to see the Yankees have the lowest swinging strike rate in the league. In this regard, the passiveness sounds fine on paper—wait for the right pitches to hit hard, and if there isn't one, simply take a walk. Alas, what looks good on paper hasn't translated to the field.

These aforementioned walks haven't actually materialized, as the team's 8.5% walk rate is only 13th best in baseball. While not the worst mark in the world, it's quite troublesome considering the walk-focused strategy the Yankees have employed. A team swinging as rarely as they are—and missing out on balls in play as a result—needs to earn more free passes than this.

Then there's that ‘hit balls hard' part of the equation, which hasn't really happened either. The team has the third worst hard hit rate, the seventh worst slugging percentage, and the third least extra base hits in the league (thanks Chase Headley). The Yankees are trying to sacrifice potentially weak balls in play for walks, and there's nothing wrong with that, if it works. Unfortunately, it hasn't.

One of the most puzzling parts of this situation is that by plate discipline, last season's Yankees were very similar to this season's, yet their offensive outputs have been wildly different.

Season

O-Swing% (Rank)

Z-Swing% (Rank)

Swing% (Rank)

O-Contact% (Rank)

Z-Contact% (Rank)

Contact% (Rank)

SwStr% (Rank)

Runs/Game (Rank)

2016

24.7% (27)

63.4% (28)

42.5% (29)

65.6% (4)

88.9% (3)

81.6% (2)

7.8% (30)

3.77 (23)

2015

28.2% (30)

64.4% (27)

44.3% (30)

66.6% (8)

87.8% (8)

80.3% (7)

8.7% (26)

4.69 (2)

It's hard to determine how the Yankees' run production has been so different despite similar plate discipline metrics, though one part of the answer may be walks. Last season, the Yankees were fourth best in that category; this season they rank 13th. Another possible explanation is that while the Yankees rarely swung last season, they swung at the right pitches. This season, they've rarely swung, but swung at the wrong pitches.

This, of course, is really simplifying things, but it could be the driving force behind the Yankees struggles. The problem is that it's very tough to figure out what the solution is other than to say "choose better." The general takeaway should be that the Yankees have to start swinging more, but only at good pitches - which feels a bit obvious. The lineup may have confused any contact at all with good contact, and currently aren't making much of the latter. It's not an easy nor clear-cut fix, but this can be remedied.

The roster is talented enough to work out of this, as evidenced last season. Swinging more—but not at bad pitches! —is a good start.