I just feel like to be a really good offense, or individually a really good offensive player, it’s hard to be that when you don’t control the strike zone. Because ultimately good pitchers, the best pitchers — big-league pitchers — can exploit that over time. And if you control the strike zone, coupled with talent and maybe power, that’s a dangerous combination. You’re going to have your outliers obviously, guys that are free swingers that are good hitters. But by and large, the teams that are (really good) offensively control the strike zone. And so it’s something that’s important to me.
This is Aaron Boone speaking to Sweeny Murti on his definition of the phrase “controlling the zone.” It is a mantra we’ve heard quite a bit since Boone was hired as manager in 2018. It is the foundational tenet of the Yankees hitting approach. The Yankees are savages in the box because they attack pitchers with patience and power. They grind out at bats until they find a pitch they can drive with authority. This plan of attack wears down pitchers, gets into the underbelly of the bullpen and increases the chances of getting a mistake in the zone. It is a philosophy that turned them into a historically productive and relentless unit.
But in the last two games of the 2019 ALCS, the Yankees are no longer controlling the zone. The more troubling part is this appears to be a conscious change of attack. There is a newfound willingness to attack early in the count despite not employing this strategy for two seasons. There is no coincidence that this shift came precisely when Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole took the mound for the Astros. The logic is sound. A hitter doesn’t want to put himself in a position to strikeout against two elite strikeout pitchers so they attack the pitcher early.
This shift in approach concedes any perceived offensive advantage to the pitcher as soon as he steps on the mound. Cole and Verlander are winning the matchup before they throw a pitch. Facing these two pitchers is already a physically daunting task. In a situation like this, an offense has to give itself a chance to dictate at bats. The margin of error is smaller, but deviating from your identity almost ensures success for pitchers the caliber of Cole and Verlander.
Beyond discussing the logic of this new plan of attack, the execution of this plan has been poor. Here are a few pitch plots for multiple at bats throughout Game 3:
It is one thing to be aggressive early in the count. It is another thing to swing at pitches that you can’t drive. None of these pitches are out over the plate. They’re either poorly located pitches or pitcher’s pitches. In either case, these aren’t offerings that hitters can really attack. Sometimes, swinging at poor offerings like these happens when you deviate from the approach that brings you success. The Yankees put themselves in unfamiliar territory. The plan is foreign, and as a result, is difficult to execute or command.
Speaking of command, Cole wasn’t the best version of himself yesterday. Here is a strike/ball plot of Cole’s outing:
This makes the Yankees sudden shift in attack even more infuriating. Cole was obliging their “control the zone” approach for most of the game. His fastball command wasn’t up to his standards and his slider was inconsistent. It is hard to believe that Cole was able to throw seven innings with 112 pitches. His lack of command suggested that he should’ve been knocked out of the game far sooner.
This speaks to another issue with the ultra aggressive approach from the Yankees. There was an inability to make in game adjustments. I recently wrote about reading the game and letting it tell you how to play it. Outside of Aaron Hicks and Gleyber Torres, the Yankees hitters didn’t allow Cole to dig his own grave. We could all see that Cole was fighting his command, but the Yankees refused to revert back to their “control the zone” mantra. This was glaring in RISP situations. The first inning at bats of three hole hitter Brett Gardner, Edwin Encarnacíon and Didi Gregorius especially stand out in this regard.
The Yankees have not been a good offense in the last two games. Yes, they are facing incredibly talented pitchers. But there should never be a scenario where a team deviates from their standard. A team shouldn’t deny their DNA because of a quality opponent. It should be the opposite. The Yankees should be the ones imposing their will and talent on the Astros. They are willingly conceding that in this series. In order to have a shot at the World Series, the Yankees need to return to that savage mentality that made them one of the greatest offenses in the history of Major League Baseball. There is still time to do it.