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The 2019 Yankees and RBI

If you’re reading this site, chances are you’ve at least dipped a toe into the waters of analytics, sabermetrics, whatever you want to call it. Even if you haven’t done more than that–or even that at all–you likely know that RBI isn’t exactly an ‘in vogue’ measure of a player’s performance. And, really, it shouldn’t be. While getting a hit with a man on base is great, that hitter didn’t do the work to put the men on base. At best, a high RBI total shows us a combination of skill–getting the hit–and chance–hitting while there happened to be men on in front of you. 

Stil, RBI tells us a story–who scored when and courtesy of whom. Without that story, the story of the game itself can’t be told. Earlier in the week, I saw a story about RBI that caught my attention. 

In a Facebook group, someone mentioned Luis Castillo’s 2000 season, in which he notched 17 RBI in 626 (!) plate appearances. Curious as to how that happened, I went to Castillo’s game logs page on Baseball Reference and looked up this handy chart:

Despite how shockingly low that is, especially when you see it compared to the average, it makes sense. Castillo was mostly a leadoff guy who was on a below average (79-82) team, so he routinely had bad hitters and the pitcher in front of him to drive in. The whole thing, though, got me curious about the Yankees. How good were they at driving in runners? Let’s take a look, using some charts. I included only those who had 300+ PA. 

Gary Sanchez

PAROBRBIRBI %AVG RBIAVG ROBAVG RBI %+/- RBI%
44629677265426321+5

Luke Voit

PAROBRBIRBI %AVG RBIAVG ROBAVG RBI %+/- RBI%
51032062196130020+1

DJ LeMahieu

PAROBRBIRBI %AVG RBIAVG ROBAVG RBI %+/- RBI%
655343102307938620+10

Didi Gregorius

PAROBRBIRBI %AVG RBIAVG ROBAVG RBI %+/- RBI%
34421561284120220+8

Gio Urshela

PAROBRBIRBI %AVG RBIAVG ROBAVG RBI %+/- RBI%
47630474245728020+4

Gleyber Torres

PAROBRBIRBI %AVG RBIAVG ROBAVG RBI %+/- RBI%
60436890247335621+3

Brett Gardner

PAROBRBIRBI %AVG RBIAVG ROBAVG RBI %+/- RBI%
55030574246632420+4

Aaron Judge

PAROBRBIRBI %AVG RBIAVG ROBAVG RBI %+/- RBI%
44724955225426321+1

This isn’t too surprising, is it? The Yankees get a lot of men on base–not one player had fewer than expected runners–and drive a lot of them in–not one player had fewer than expected RBI. As such, all of them are above the average expected RBI% by at least 1%, with DJLM smoking everyone else at 10% above average. 

Are these players good because they have high RBI totals and percentages compared to the average? No. They have those things because they are good players and they play with good players who get on base. RBI don’t tell the whole story, but they tell part of it. In this case, it’s another way of telling us the the Yankees are good at hitting. Plain and simple.

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Tinkering With the Lineup

(Keith Allison – CC BY-SA 2.0)

It’s January 26th. We’re under a month away from pitchers and catchers reporting. But it still feels like we’ve got forever to go and aside from Derek Jeter’s Hall of Fame election, there isn’t much going on in Yankee-land. So let’s do something fun, if futile: think about the Yankee lineup.

As we well know, lineup construction doesn’t matter that much over the course of the season, so long as you’re not putting the worst hitters up top and the best hitters down low. In the best possible way, it’s very hard to tell the good and bad hitters from each other in the Yankee lineup. This makes it difficult–again, in the best possible way–to figure out exactly what the best configuration is. What a wonderful problem to have, right?

The following lineup is pretty ‘standard,’ what I think Aaron Boone will trot out most days.

  1. DJ LeMahieu, 2B
  2. Aaron Judge, RF
  3. Giancarlo Stanton, LF
  4. Gary Sanchez, C
  5. Gleyber Torres, SS
  6. Luke Voit, 1B
  7. Miguel Andujar, DH
  8. Gio Urshela, 3B
  9. Brett Gardner, CF

This lineup is more than fine by itself. You could make a few tweaks, I suppose–swap Urshela and Gardner, if you want; swap Stanton and Sanchez, too, if you please. No matter what, a combination of these nine guys is gonna score a lot of runs.

Here’s a slightly more than slightly altered version.

  1. Brett Gardner, CF
  2. DJ LeMahieu, 2B
  3. Aaron Judge, RF
  4. Giancarlo Stanton, LF
  5. Gary Sanchez, C
  6. Gleyber Torres, SS
  7. Luke Voit, 1B
  8. Miguel Andujar, DH
  9. Gio Urshela, 3B

This lineup has a slightly more traditional twinge with a fast, OBP guy at the top and a contact hitter second. Given Gardner’s on-base ability–and occasional power–it’s not hard to imagine DJLM’s contact skills driving in a few runs or putting a runner in scoring position in the first inning. New conventional wisdom says to put Judge second to get him more plate appearances, but this still guarantees him a first inning PA and gives him a decent chance to have guys aboard. This does, however, bury Gleyber a bit, which he probably doesn’t deserve. Maybe you swap him and Gary, depending on who’s hot. Again, this lineup is gonna produce no matter what.

Here’s one last lineup that’s maybe a touch different, a little friskier.

  1. Brett Gardner, CF
  2. DJ LeMahieu, 2B
  3. Gleyber Torres, SS
  4. Aaron Judge, RF
  5. Giancarlo Stanton, LF
  6. Gary Sanchez, C
  7. Luke Voit, 1B
  8. Miguel Andujar, DH
  9. Gio Urshela, 3B

This lineup puts all the more contact-oriented players up top (minus one) and gives Gleyber his deserved spot at the top. This lineup is also just a power onslaught after the first three batters–who are capable of power themselves!

Regardless of how the Yankees line up this year, there will not be many landing spots, if any. There are questions, sure. Can DJLM keep tapping into power? Will Gardner keep up his production at an advanced age? How will Luke Voit and Miguel Andujar bounce back from their injuries? Hell, we don’t even know what the baseball is going to be like! But even with those (not very vexing) questions and whatever happens with the baseball, the Yankees are going to score. Often.

Sunday Thoughts

It’s been quite a week, hasn’t it? The last time I wrote here, the Astros, Red Sox, and Mets all still had managers and we hadn’t spent a chunk of an afternoon analyzing what was on Josh Reddick’s chest or under Jose Altuve’s jersey. Despite all that happened, it only tangentially touched on the Yankees, who’ve been relatively quiet since they signed Gerrit Cole. Still, I’ve got some thoughts, one on baseball in general and the other on the Yankees. Here they are.

The Sanctity of the Game

Given the Astros and the Red Sox, Hinch and Cora, and Beltran, the idea of the sanctity of baseball, the purity of the game, has floated around this week. This is as good a time as any to remind ourselves that such a thing has never really existed. At no point in baseball’s history was it pure. In the early 20th century, baseball battled gambling and allowed segregation. In the middle of the century, the supposed ‘golden age’ of the game, there was labor exploitation and the use of amphetamines. The rest of the century, and well into this one, saw the use of PEDs, not to mention two work stoppages and collusion, with another one potentially looming. Given all that, should we care all that much about the sign stealing business?

Hell yes we should. All of those transgressions above are worth fighting against to varying degrees. When these things happen, the illusion of the game gets blemished and can even shatter completely. When we discuss them, we’re healing those blemishes and repairing those cracks.

Will there always be sign stealing in baseball? Of course. But it shouldn’t be done electronically. Will players always try to get an edge, however they can? Of course. But it shouldn’t be done in a way that harms their health.

Perfection in baseball can never and will never exist, but that’s okay. We shouldn’t let that stand in the way of attempting to make the game more perfect, more inclusive, and more fair.

Platooning

The Yankees will be an excellent team once more, at least they should be. Bobby talked about their projections here and Derek did, too. The key to the Yankees being this good as that, simply, they have a lot of good players at a lot of positions. One of those good players is Miguel Andujar. As he returns from his injury, the Yankees will need to be judicious in deploying him, both for the sake of his skills and his health.

There’s little doubt that Andujar can hit. There’s much doubt, however, that he can adequately field his position at third base. The former certainty outweighs the latter doubt, though, and he should be in the lineup just about every day. Presumably, he’ll be the DH while Gio Urshela plays third base. Of course there are times when Urshela will need a day off and other players will need a DH day.

In cases of the former, perhaps they can slide whomever the utility IF is to third and keep Miggy at DH. In cases of the latter, they should plan for half days off when fly ball pitchers are on the mound. This will cover Andujar’s deficiency a bit while still keeping his bat in the lineup. Given that the Yankees like to plan days off ahead of time, this should be easy to accommodate. Will it always work out perfectly? Probably not. But it’s worth a shot.

This same plan could also work in reverse to give Brett Gardner days off. As good as he is, Gardner is up there in age and will need more time off as he’s manning center field. When a groundball pitcher is in, that’s when they can and should give him rest, with Mike Tauchmann in center. Like the Andujar plan, this won’t always work out, but it’s possible.

The easiest way to be a good team is to have good players. The next step is deploying them properly to take advantage of their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. The more the Yankees do that, the more they’re going to win..and they’re probably gonna do a lot of that anyway.

Reviewing the Yankees’ 2020 Projections: ZiPS

After examining Steamer’s 2020 outlook earlier this week, it’s time to review the Yankees’ ZiPS projections just released on Fangraphs today. And as you can tell by the graphic above, they are pretty, pretty good.

ZiPS comfortably puts the Yankees over the 100-win threshold, as it should. The Yankees are stacked, folks. Let’s take a closer look at some of the more intriguing projections the system has in store.

Betting the over

Hitter: Like I did with Steamer, I could easily pick DJ LeMahieu again (ZiPS has a 108 OPS+ projection). But, let’s mix it up here to avoid repetitiveness. I’m going bolder this time. Gio Urshela already has a respectable forecast, but I think he’ll do better than the 105 OPS+ and 2.2 WAR ZiPS calls for. Urshela’s exit velocity, hard hit percentage, and xwOBA all were comfortably above average last year which led to a 133 OPS+. Now, I don’t expect a repeat of 2019, but something like a 115 OPS+ seems within reach.

Pitcher: ZiPS pegs Zack Britton for a 3.48 ERA and 3.63 FIP in 51 2/3 innings. A fine projection, but I think Britton can beat it easily. Zack really came on in the second half of last season and I think we can expect more of that in 2020. Take a look at the splits from a year ago:

  • 1st half: 2.43 ERA and 4.21 FIP, 17.2 percent strikeout rate
  • 2nd half: 1.11 ERA and 3.01 FIP, 28.7 percent strikeout rate

Betting the under

Hitter: This was a hard one. I don’t think there’s any obvious pick here, so I’m going a little more granular. ZiPS projects Gleyber Torres to hit 41 home runs, but I think he falls short of that. I know he hit 38 last year, so 41 may be in reach, but I am more comfortable pegging Torres in the 25-30 home run range. Which is still great! I just can’t see him hitting more homers per plate appearance (one every 15.1 PAs) than Aaron Judge (one every 15.8 PAs), which is what ZiPS indicates.

Pitcher: I have no choice but to do a repeat here. I thought Steamer was too high on JA Happ, but ZiPS is even more optimistic. It expects 138 innings of 4.43 ERA and 4.40 FIP performance, which seems too good to be true. I’ll gladly sign up for a 101 ERA+ from the fifth starter, but I just can’t envision it.

Push

Hitter: Gary Sánchez’s projection feels about right. ZiPS gives The Kraken a .244/.323/.524 (121 OPS+) batting line with 32 homers and 2.6 WAR in 467 plate appearances. Only Giancarlo Stanton (43 in 567) is projected to hit homers at a higher per PA rate than Gary. That said, I could absolutely see a monster season that beats the forecast, but this is a pretty darn good outlook nonetheless.

Pitcher: ZiPS projects a 4.34 ERA and 4.30 FIP for Masashiro Tanaka in 168 innings. Considering that Tanaka hasn’t posted a FIP below 4.01 since 2016, this seems like a reasonable expectation. In any event, we know the season doesn’t really get going until the calendar says October for Tanaka. We can reasonably expect a sub-2.00 ERA come fall.

Biggest Surprises

Hitter: ZiPS has Mike Tauchman at 2.5 WAR, or sixth-best out of the Yankees’ position players. It loves his defense and thinks he’ll hit aplenty (.263/.335/.437, 105 OPS+). I think the offensive projection is reasonable, but the way ZiPS loves Tauchman’s glove caught me off guard. Dan Szymborski, the proprietor of ZiPS, did note that the system has loved his fielding since he was in the minors. Statcast has him in the 95th percentile in outs above average, so maybe this shouldn’t come as a total surprise. But essentially, per ZiPS, the big takeaway here is that Tauchman should play over Brett Gardner, which I didn’t anticipate.

Pitcher: It’s not really one guy, but rather, how the non-late inning relievers stack up per ZiPS. See below:

PlayerERA+
Ben Heller108
Jonathan Loaisiga104
Brooks Kriske101
Jonathan Holder101
Luis Cessa93

If the Yankees are going to carry an eight man bullpen, that means three of the five above can be in the majors along with Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Chad Green, Adam Ottavino, and Tommy Kahnle. It’s pretty obvious that Cessa should be the odd-man out, right? And that Heller absolutely deserves a spot, too. I didn’t expect that to be so cut and dry. I figured everyone would be a bit more closely bunched together.

Personal Favorites

When you see Gleyber’s projection.

Hitter: It has to be Gleyber’s projection, right? I know I already wrote about betting the under on his home run total, but still. .287/.348/.557 (136 OPS+), 41 home runs, and 4.6 WAR is a thing of beauty for the 23 year-old shortstop.

Pitcher: One of my favorite things about the ZiPS release are the comps the system spits out. For the Yankees, the pitcher comps are simply fantastic. ZiPS equates Gerrit Cole to prime Greg Maddux, Luis Severino to Roy Halladay, and James Paxton to Andy Pettitte. And then there’s the bullpen. Aroldis Chapman was comped to Billy Wagner, Chad Green to Rollie Fingers, and Adam Ottavino to Jeff Nelson.

Maybe the Yankees don’t need a left-handed power hitter

Embed from Getty Images

Spring Training is roughly a month away, and though the offseason isn’t technically over, it feels like the Yankees are just about done. Trading JA Happ seems like the final step this winter, if it even occurs at all. As a result, the Yankees will enter 2020 without a left-handed power hitter, something that’s typically been a bastion of great Yankees teams. Sure, they’ve gotten by without one in recent seasons. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be nice to have one again.

When the offseason began, we wrote about the team targeting a left-handed bat. Steven covered it and our offseason plan called for it. But now, many of the options we had in mind are no longer available. Notable names like Corey Dickerson and Eric Thames are off the market, and the remaining left-handed free agents aren’t particularly inspiring. That leaves the Yankees to settle with what they have internally — but perhaps the lack of a traditional lefty household name isn’t such a big deal after all.

The Yankees have righties who take advantage of the short porch

Make no mistake — the Yankees are a right-handed heavy lineup. And yet, a number of the righties in the lineup are capable of replicating lefty pull power. Namely: DJ LeMahieu, Gio Urshela, and Luke Voit. Below are fly ball and line drive spray charts for each hitter:

I know the images are small, but I think it’s pretty clear what each one depicts. LeMahieu, Urshela, and Voit all can sneak one over the 314 foot sign at Yankee Stadium with ease. Take a look for yourself. First, LeMahieu:

Urshela:

And finally, Voit:

So these three are going to have chances to pepper the short porch in the way a lefty bat could, perhaps making the need for one not such a big deal after all.

Mike Ford is a wild card

Wait, the Yankees already have a lefty power hitter! Ford was excellent once he got going late in the summer in the Bronx. In 163 plate appearances, the first baseman hit .259/.350/.559 (134 wRC+) with 12 home runs. It may not be a fluke, either: Bobby brought up his impressive 115 wRC+ Steamer projection just last week.

Funnily enough, Ford hit just two of his 12 dingers at Yankee Stadium in 2019. That’s surely a coincidence, because he’s more than able to pepper the right field seats.

All of Ford’s 2019 homers with a Yankee Stadium overlay. (Baseball Savant)

Of course, there’s one big question on everyone’s mind with Ford. Is the 27 year-old for real? Time will tell, but at least we know Steamer likes him. He’s also a Statcast darling who lights up the exit velocity leaderboards. So, maybe the Yankees don’t need a left-handed slugger because they already have one.

Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, and Mike Tauchman will chip in

In addition to Ford, it’s not like the Yankees are devoid of lefty hitters anyway. Now, no one else who can hit from the left side is necessarily a power hitter, but they’re not weak either.

Brett Gardner found the fountain of youth last year and bopped a career high 28 homers. Some of that was the juiced ball for sure, but Gardy also hit 21 dingers back in 2017. He’s no stranger to yanking one into the right field box seats just out of the outfielder’s reach.

Aaron Hicks is a switch-hitter, not a lefty, but he still will take the majority of his plate appearances from the left side once he’s healthy. Now, injuries have frequently hindered Hicks throughout his career. Nonetheless, he’s got plenty of power and hit 10 homers in 171 plate appearances from the left side.

Finally, Mike Tauchman flashed good pop in 2019. The juiced ball may have been his friend, but 13 homers and a .227 isolated power in 296 plate appearances is nothing to sneeze at. Similar to Ford though, he’s going to have to prove himself not to have been a flash in the pan last year.

There’s no need to be picky

Last but certainly not least, the Yankees are already loaded with power hitters. Why fret over which batter’s box said hitters stand in? From Aaron Judge to Giancarlo Stanton to Gary Sánchez, it doesn’t necessarily matter.

The team hit 306 homers in 2019 and could approach that mark again in 2020. And after Gardner’s 28 dingers from the left side, the next two closest lefties were Tauchman and Ford who were part-timers. In other words, the team didn’t really need lefties to drive its offense to success last year.

At the end of the day, the Yankees’ offense will be elite with or without a traditional lefty bat with star-power. And who knows, perhaps someone like Ford or Tauchman will emerge and fill the void. Either way, this lineup is going to score and hit plenty of home runs, lefties or not.

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