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Left-handed Yankees hitters need to do better on inside pitches

Left-handed hitters in the Yankees’ lineup were vulnerable to inside pitches last year.

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Intuitively speaking, if I were a pitcher facing the Yankees, I would have one simple plan for left-handed hitters: avoid the inside part of the plate at all costs. With the short porch in right field, trying to pitch them inside would be too dangerous, as they could easily deposit pitches into the right field bleachers. However, this intuition did not hold up in 2016. What should have been a major source of power for the Yankees was actually somewhat of a weakness for the Bronx Bombers.

According to Baseball Savant, lefties across the league saw 3.97% of pitches on the inner half of the plate in 2016. Yankee lefties were pitched inside 5.35% of the time, the second-highest in baseball. In first place was the Seattle Mariners, and in third place was the San Francisco Giants, two teams that play in ballparks that are not friendly to left-handed hitters. In addition, the Yankees had below average production on such pitches:

Left-Handed Hitters on Inside Pitches

MLB 0.279 0.494
Yankees 0.246 0.440

Granted, three of the hitters who logged significant at-bats from the lefty batter’s box in 2016 are gone. Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Mark Teixeira are no longer with the Yankees, and they had mixed levels of production when attacked inside. Here are how the remaining five did in 2016 when pitched inside as lefties:

Left-Handed Hitters on Inside Pitches

Player BA SLG
Player BA SLG
Aaron Hicks 0.345 0.517
Brett Gardner 0.292 0.375
Chase Headley 0.277 0.532
Didi Gregorius 0.258 0.565
Jacoby Ellsbury 0.236 0.389

Immediately, a couple of things stand out. First, Didi Gregorius did some damage on pitches located on the inside half of the plate. Being able to turn inside pitches around for home runs played a major role in helping him improve against left-handed pitching, which was once his Achilles’ heel. In 2016, his OPS against lefties improved from .626 to .834, quieting concerns that he was a platoon player at best.

Second, Jacoby Ellsbury appears to be a major culprit. Over 10% of the pitches he saw were on the inner third of the strike zone, and he didn’t do much against those pitches. His inability to turn pitches around may have something to do with a mechanical flaw, as hitting coach Alan Cockrell may have hinted. In January, he suggested that Ellsbury’s catcher’s interference record may have been the result of him letting the ball travel too far before making contact, sapping his production.

In any case, a big part of the Yankees’ potential rebound will have to involve left-handed hitters doing damage when they are pitched inside. A healthy Greg Bird and mechanically sound Chase Headley should help the cause out, but Gardner and Ellsbury will need to contribute as well. Hopefully, the inside corner will be a danger zone again for opposing pitchers.

Data is courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Savant.