Last week, I wrote about how the Yankees have cut down on their strikeout rate, relative to league trends. A handful of games later, that’s holding up, as the team is below the league median in K% and ranked 20th in the majors. On the one hand, that’s pretty good, right? Fewer swings and misses is generally positive, and New York’s supposed propensity to strike out is easily the second favorite piece of fat for fans to chew on, behind the Jacoby Ellsbury contract.
Is it really a good thing, though? At the heart, strikeouts really are just another out. For all the talk of errors or “putting pressure on the defense,” contact really doesn’t equal success, as we’ve seen in the perennial decrease in league-wide BABIP. Better athletes on the field and more efficient defensive alignment have yielded more outs converted on balls in play, and the depth of talent in major-league bullpens means that six or seven hit rallies are few and far between.
So, we know that New York has “free” at-bats thanks to their decline in strikeout rate, but how are they spending them? In short; not efficiently.
Contact can be broken into four buckets: line drives, fly balls, ground balls and infield fly balls. Respectively, one of those four is always good, one is sometimes good, and two are almost never good. Guess which buckets those “free” at-bats have been sorted into? You guessed it, the less-good ones.
Three weeks into the season, the Yankees are hitting fewer line drives, more ground and fly balls, and almost 50% more infield fly balls than their 2017 marks. The ground and infield fly balls are the most concerning, as those are overwhelmingly converted to outs. Meanwhile, the HR/FB rate is also down over 2017’s mark, but that’s one thing I’m not worried about. Home runs are down across baseball, surprisingly, and I expect that to normalize once MLB teams stop playing games in monsoons.
The balls on the ground, and in the infield, are of the biggest concern. IFFBs turn into outs so often that many sites consider them to be strikeouts. While the Yankees are currently second in baseball in IFFB%, and you could think that their 15.4% rate will normalize, you should note that all of baseball is hitting more popups, with the league median of 12% higher than all but one team’s 2017 popup rate, the median of which was also higher than 2016’s. As more and more batters change to uppercut swings, it’s only natural that we’ll see more balls popped straight up.
As for balls on the ground, the Yankees are no speed demons, so most of those become groundouts. More pressing, though, is the combination of a high walk rate with ground balls: double plays. The Yankees have already bounced into 14 double plays this year, including three from Aaron Judge on Opening Weekend. That puts them on pace for 147 over the entire season, up from 113 in 2017. Double plays are uniformly worse than strikeouts, and don’t help the cause of “shortening up.”
This isn’t meant to be a screed about the Yankees’ approach, or even a mockery over the “cutting down strikeouts” strategy. It’s simply a reflection that in 2017, strikeouts and all, the Yankees were operating at pretty close to the upper limit of a major league offense. Simply replacing the strikeouts with a different kind of out wasn’t the solution then, and we’re seeing it’s not a panacea in 2018.