Dispensing with pleasantries before we even get to one, let’s just say that Gary Sánchez is not having a strong start to the 2020 season. In eight games, he has just two hits and one walk. In his 27 plate appearances, he has struck out 14 times. To quote a former Yankee manager and recent Yankee opponent, it’s not what you want. Let’s take a look at the how and the why for this ugliness and try to draw some conclusions.
When a player is striking out a lot more than normal, the first thing to consider might be if he’s swinging any more or less in general. That doesn’t seem to be the case as he’s about where he was last year, though with a slight downturn against offspeed pitching.
To spare you some more graphs, I’ll skip ahead to what I found most interesting in Sánchez’s swing profile this season. First, here’s his in-zone swing percentages.
Pretty normal, huh? And it seems to match with his overall swing percentages: about the same as always, but slightly less on offspeed. Now, here’s his in-zone swing-and-miss percentages.
Oh, boy. While the breaking and offspeed lines aren’t too alarming, that fastball one is…yikes. Whiffing on that many fastballs in the zone is not going to be a winning strategy for any hitter, even one as talented as Gary.
His out-of-zone numbers tell a similar story: a relatively normal distribution of pitches and a higher rate of whiffs:
We can see increases in chase/whiff percentages on both fastballs and breaking pitches. It’s never good when you expand the zone and miss those pitches you’re expanding on.
Overall, his strikeout percentages look like this:
Two of those lines are heading in a Not Great direction, aren’t they?
To drive the point home about misses even more, let’s look at his zone profile from Brooks:
Middle and up in the zone, he’s whiffing a lot. Up out of the zone, he’s wiffing a lot; those two areas–broad as they are–correlate with the fastball whiff percentages from the Statcast graphs. The middle and lower right portions of the zone profile correlate with the breaking whiff percentages from the Statcast data.
Almost nothing on the offensive side has looked good for Gary in 2020. But there are silver linings. It’s early in the season (funny to say in August) so there’s a lot of variance and extremity to these numbers. That alone means they’re going to come back down. Additionally, according to Statcast, the little contact he’s making has been pretty quality. He ranks in the 83rd percentile for exit velocity and in the 6oth for hard hit percentage. Once Gary starts making more consistent contact, things should level out for him. And when that happens, he can carry an offense.
It was brief, but Andrew McCutchen’s time with the Yankees had an impact on me. In the moment, it was easy to appreciate the .251/.421/.471/.892 (145 OPS+) batting line. But both then and going forward, it was easy to appreciated Cutch as a person and a player. All around, he’s a funny, charming guy and a great ambassador for the game of baseball. So when he speaks, we ought to listen. In an article published yesterday, Cutch spoke, specifically about the Yankees’ hair length and facial hair policy. And all I can say is that he’s right.
While the policy may do a good job of saving players from their own bad hair and facial hair choices, it’s antiquated and stodgy at best and suppressive and racist at worst.
We live and baseball exists in a much different time than when the policy was implemented in 1973. Baseball, as many have said many times, needs to be better at letting individual players and personalities shine through; this policy runs contrary to that idea. As the biggest name and biggest brand in baseball, the Yankees need to catch up with the times and the other team.
While the Yankees hold a special place in our hearts and heads because we’re fans, on a bigger level, they aren’t any more or less special than any other team. Like the other 29, they’re a team trying to win and a business trying to make money. They aren’t priests or monks and Yankee Stadium isn’t a church or a monastery. They are not a city on a hill or a shining beacon or some morally superior club because their players look a certain way; they’re just a baseball team.
Sure, as a business, they can set rules, including a policy like this, but that doesn’t mean they should (other businesses shouldn’t either, generally speaking). Baseball isn’t like the office or wherever that we go into (or used to!) every day; it’s an entertainment product and not letting the stars of said product express themselves to the fullest isn’t necessary.
In the era of “Let the Kids Play” and players using their voices for bigger causes, of the need to market the stars, the Yankees’ policy is lagging behind. They need to get with the times.
Expect the unexpected and you’ll never be surprised, right? Although if you’re expecting it, is it unexpected? Regardless of that philosophical quandary, it’s safe to say that when the Yankees played their final game of 2019, none of us would have expected the situation we’re in now. But here we are now, unsure of what to expect going forward.
There are some things laid out for us: an expanded roster (which was coming anyway), a universal DH (thank the baseball gods), and a condensed, sprint of a schedule against a limited spate of opponents.
Given what we know about baseball in general, combined with these unique circumstances, here are a few things I expect, some more serious than others.
I expect that the pitchers will be ahead of the hitters. This is a baseball truism that, like all baseball truisms, doesn’t always hold, uh, true, but for now, I certainly expect it. Gerrit Cole is reportedly already up to the mid-high 90’s with his fastball and I’d imagine a lot of other pitchers are pretty geared up. It’s likely been easier for them, generally speaking, to ramp up to their game shape than it has been for hitters. Despite the universal DH–more on that shortly–I think the beginning of the season, league-wide, will be a little lower scoring than normal.
As for the universal DH, I expect that fans of the NL will finally come around. First, they’ll see it’s not the unholy abomination they think it is. Second, they’ll realize how much more appealing it is to watch nine real hitters instead of eight. Third, they’ll realize that the double-switch is not the be-all, end-all of baseball strategy.
But, unfortunately, what I expect is actually…nothing. And by that I mean I don’t expect a single meaningful pitch to be thrown this year. There are still a few weeks until the start of the season, but with news trickling in every day about players testing positive for COVID and with David Price deciding to sit out the year, I feel like things are coming to a head. We even got one hell of an omen yesterday with Masahiro Tanaka taking a line drive to the head (all well wishes to him for a speedy recovery, of course). Every day, holding a season feels more and more irresponsible and less and less ethical or likely.
Do I want there to be a baseball season? I used to say yes but that I knew there shouldn’t be. At this point, I don’t even think I really want it anymore. The risks are too great and the rewards too small.
And one last expectation, though this is more for you: I’m about to be a dad a second time over, so I’ll likely be gone from this space (and the podcast) for a little bit. Please don’t miss me too much.
On July 25, 2019, the Yankees played their 102nd game. On July 23, 2020, the Yankees will play their first game. On July 25, 2019, the Yankees had a 9.5 game lead in the AL East with 60 games left. On July 23, 2020, the Yankees will be tied for the division lead–with everyone–with 60 games left.
There will be no cushion. There will be no ramping up. There will be no marathon. There will be a sprint.
The season is no longer broken up into pieces. Rather, it is an elongated stretch run, in which important players will become even more so.
While the Yankees’ approach to team building clearly works over the course of the long regular season, it also works in the short term and the playoffs. Did it work as well without an ace? Not necessarily. Now with Gerrit Cole in tow, the Yankees have that. They also have a strong bullpen and a deep lineup, all things that lead to success in the season and October.
Of course, none of this may end up mattering. Given the situation in the country right now, I’m doubtful we see even a single meaningful pitch of baseball this year. But if we do have one, it’ll be a season unlike any we’ve ever seen.
Monday saw us pretty much declare the MLB season dead. Just two days later, we were reviving it, hopeful it could happen. But now, as I write this, I don’t know how any season could be possible. Not only are the owners going to reject the players’ 70 game proposal, it seems like COVID’s continuing impact on the country is going to supersede anything else.
As if it weren’t abundantly clear already, there really shouldn’t be sports in the United States this year. The first wave that we felt here in New York is finally reaching other parts of the country, especially places that opened up early, including Florida and Arizona, necessitating that MLB teams do Spring Training–if it even happens–at their home parks, excepting the Blue Jays. That may be good for the Yankees and Mets, but it could put the Diamondbacks, Marlins, and Rays at risk, not to mention the Rangers and Astros, given the similar situation in Texas.
Other countries are enjoying sports right now because their governments and authorities handled this situation much better than ours did. For that, we as sports fans are paying the price. It’s a trivial price, sure, but this is a sports-focused site, so we’ll pretend it’s more important than it is.
In the vein of pretending, let’s also imagine that things are okay enough to start baseball again and it’s just the labor issues that are holding things up. If you’ve listened to the podcast–and you obviously have, right?–you know how we here feel about the labor issues and whose side we’re on (it’s the players’ side). With that in mind, I have a question about the game that I’ve been asking myself for a while now, but wasn’t quite sure how to put my thoughts about it into words. It’s a rhetorical question, to be sure, as there isn’t quite a real answer out there.
How responsible is sabermetrics/analytics “stuff” responsible for the state of the game? There are two levels to my answer.
The first is the on-field level. Analytics have made the game much different than it was before. A prime example of this? The other day, I was watching a 1996 playoff game and Mariano Rivera was pitched. The announcers seemed awed that he was throwing around 93 at times. Nowadays, thanks to the emphasis on strikeouts, every team has multiple bullpen arms who can hit 95 with regularity.
That emphasis on strikeouts from the pitching side leads into the rest of the game’s aesthetic, which has been focused on power pitching, power hitting, and getting on base for quite a while now. In a way that’s distasteful to some (many?), this has made the game less active–fewer balls put into play–and made winning teams seem a little monolithic at times. On the whole, I’m fine with this, more or less. Striking batters out, socking dingers (and other XBH), and getting men on base is a winning formula. If you want it to change, build a better mousetrap.
But on the bigger level, the off-field stuff, I do wonder if the rise in analytics has led to more tension between players and owners. Doubtless, the owners have been trying to screw over the players since the start of the professional game. Luckily, people like Curt Flood and Marvin Miller started fighting back against those things and the players have gained much more power than their predecessors could’ve dreamed of. But the current way of thinking regarding analytics, the way it’s been for the past 20 years, really, has a laser focus on efficiency that certainly has a slightly dehumanizing effect. The teams and front offices are also farther ahead on this stuff than the players and they use that to their advantage. These consequences are unintended; the landscape of writers and thinkers who’ve moved analytics forward is chock full of almost universally pro-player, pro-labor sentiment. However, they’re consequences regardless of purpose.
Can this be undone? Probably not. But, as the players make their own personal gains in understanding and applying analytics, they can fight back with information at hand. Should this be undone? Not really. Analytics have helped us understand the game on a deeper level and that’s a good thing overall.
One last bit, again touching on the racial issues and baseball, as I’ve done a lot of recently. If you follow me on Twitter, I apologize for the repeat. If you don’t, here’s a thought I had this past week:
I’m not sure how it would look or how it would run, but at some point, there needs to be some public reckoning by white baseball players about race in baseball, beyond tweets and instagram posts.
And I don’t mean the Sean Doolittle, Lucas Giolito types who seem to have their heads on right. Maybe they run it or lead it, but there needs to be some public discussion with the “play the game the right way” crowd, which is likely overwhelmingly white and “conservative.”
We’ve heard a lot from Black players about the pain and hardship of being a Black major leaguer; now we need to hear from the white players, coaches, execs, etc. about what the hell they’re going to do to change it.
It must be a tremendous burden for Black players to constantly deal w/this stuff and the solutions, generally speaking, need to be from their ideas. But it shouldn’t also be their burden to constantly teach and lead on things. White players, coaches, execs have to take the baton at some point and make the change actually happen. It’s not just gonna happen by Good Tweets and Meaningful Statements or by Wanting It. They’ve gotta do things to change the culture of baseball in a real, tangible way. Top down, bottom up.
For myriad reasons, the state of the game is at the strangest its been in my lifetime. I have no idea what it will look like in a matter of days, let alone next season or beyond. Much like life might not look the same for a bit, I wonder if baseball with follow the same pattern.