When Dillon Lawson, the Yankees’ new hitting coach, addressed the media for the first time yesterday, his professed offensive philosophy to “hit strikes hard” seemed obvious. Lawson himself admitted that this is “not complicated”, and it’s true: it is basic reasoning. But that does not mean it is bad reasoning. Quite the contrary, in fact.
The Yankees’ offense, despite the fact it is loaded with big name sluggers, was decidedly pedestrian in the 2021 campaign. The Bombers scored just 711 runs last year (4.3 per game), which ranked 19th in the game. Their 18.2 fWAR as an offensive unit was 16th. As we noted in an offseason roundup, their Statcast wOBA was barely above league average. And on and on.
While you can peel the onion back a layer to find plenty of encouraging signs, the hard facts are the same: the offense was bad, and it really hurt the Yankees. Diagnosing and solving a broken offense will be Lawson’s biggest challenge next year – and his comments yesterday demonstrate that he already understands the biggest issue.
First, the good news about the offense. The Yankees were patient (league-leading 10.2% walk rate), disciplined (swinging at just 28% of pitches out of the zone, 4th in baseball), and hit the ball hard (2nd highest exit velocity in baseball). That is an approach that will bear fruit more often than not.
So, what went wrong? You guessed it: their team-wide inability to capitalize on pitches in the zone.
As a team, the Yankees hit a measly .273 against strikes last year, with teams like the Diamondbacks and Phillies keeping them company. Their isolate power was .205, a figure that closely mirrored the offensive performance of the Angels and Orioles. Here is what that looks like in a zone chart:
Compare that to 2019 for a little bit of context:
Curiously, though, the Yankees had a top-5 offense by exit velocity on strikes in 2021. So their abysmal performance – especially compared to past iterations of the team – cannot simply be explained away by soft contact. For answers, we must dig slightly digger – and we must remember that hard contact alone does not make a good offense.
Hard contact must also be paired with good swing paths for optimal outcomes. The Yankees failed in this regard fairly spectacularly given their contact profile. Their average launch angle on contact with strikes was just 14 degrees on average, good for 15th in baseball. (As Jaime noted earlier this offseason, it was much lower overall, too.) They were 10th in this department in 2019, for what it’s worth. This tracks with the team’s ground ball percentage (43.4%), which was 12th highest in baseball.
Josh Donaldson said in 2017 that, “if you see [him] hit a ground ball, even if it’s a hit, I can tell you: It was an accident.” The 2021 Yankees are an illustration in why that’s true. They pounded strikes – they just hit them into the ground. You’re not going to get many hits or score many runs that way.
But that isn’t all. They were also incredibly passive against pitches in the zone. They had the third-lowest swing percentage (66.9%) in baseball on balls in the zone and the fifth highest CSW, which tracks the percentage of called and swinging strikes. The Yanks’ zone contact rate was second-lowest in baseball. The Yankees, then, were not just pounding strikes into the ground. They were also missing them entirely. That is a bad combination. (It also tracks with the eye test. There were so many infuriating games to watch last year!)
This paints a pretty clear picture for improvement next year. The Yankees need to get back to the basics. As Lawson said:
“When we swing, we want to swing at strikes, and when we swing at strikes, we are likely to make more contact. When we make more contact, we’re likely to hit the ball harder,” Lawson said, according to Lindsey Adler at the Athletic (subs req’d), who wrote a great piece on this topic yesterday. “The last little thing would be that when we make contact, we would like to hit it over the infield.”
As it turns out, though, hitting the ball over the infield is not such a little thing after all: it can be the difference from a championship offense and a middling one. It is a good sign that the Yankees’ new hitting coach, in his first public appearance, is speaking to the Yankees’ core offensive issue in 2021. The next step will be for him to fix it for 2022.