It’s been an alarming season for the Yankee offense. We’re now a third of the way through the season and the team is hitting .227/.315/.370 (95 wRC+) as a unit. This is where the team ranks in some key offensive categories:
- Homers: 64 (14th)
- Slugging: .370 (24th)
- wOBA: .304 (18th)
- ISO: .143 (25th)
- Runs: 207 (25th)
To say that this is an unexpected development is an understatement. I don’t think anyone could have predicted this. Not even the most pessimistic Yankee fan. The offense completely collapsing would probably have been at the bottom of every person’s prediction list.
There have been no shortage of proposed hypotheses for the problem, but none of them have really been sufficient explainers. The ball changed, sure, but it changed for everyone. And yes, the Yankees swing and miss – but they also did that in 2018 and 2019. And they had right-handed heavy lineups then, too. These answers may be pieces of the puzzle, but they are far from the adhesive holding it together.
Normally, when a team is struggling offensively, the first place I’d look is to see if they are pressing and chasing pitches out of the zone. That’s not the case for the Yankees. Not at all, actually. Their approach is largely consistent with their typical output. The Yankees are second overall in walk rate (10.8%), and their chase rate (28%) ranks toward the bottom of the league. All of this tracks with the patient, measured approach we’re used to seeing.
In some ways, I wish the Yankees were actually chasing. That’s an easy fix and tweak to the approach. Instead, what’s going on with the Yankees is that they simply cannot hit strikes anymore. It is bizarre. I don’t know how to fix it, but it’s pretty clearly the root of the problem. Let’s get into it.
Punishing strikes is the foundation of a good offense. We’ve all heard it time and time again on broadcasts and from hitters: lay off the junk, wait for your pitch, and don’t miss it when it comes. The Yankees, who prior to 2021 owned one of baseball’s top offenses, have been excellent at this throughout their recent title window.
From 2017-2020, the Yankees led the league in wOBA against pitches in the zone (.353) by a fairly considerable margin. Overall, they hit .297/.300/.552 on such pitches, launched a league-leading 817 home runs, and ranked near the top of the league in exit velocity and launch angle. In other words, they did what they were supposed to: hit strikes hard and hit them into the air. That leads to charts like this, which show the team’s batting average against strikes across 2019 and 2020:
I know that batting average isn’t the most reliable metric for offensive production, but it is a useful proxy here. It’s clear that the Yankees did everything right on pitches in the zone. With this context, it is no surprise that they were a league-leading offense for half a decade. They were simply doing what needed to be done.
Enter 2021, when things turned bizarre. This year, against strikes, the Yankees rank 25th in wOBA (.301), and they’re hitting just .261/.266/.437 against the offerings. It’s a complete evaporation of power and production against the hittable pitches we’re used to seeing them crush. Overall, this leads to charts that look like this:
Oddly, their exit velocity is 3rd in the league, and there is no noticeable change in approach. Compare this breakdown wheel from 2021:
To this one from 2019 and 2020:
Again, let’s just focus on approach a bit. They’re not taking more pitches in the zone – in fact, the the rates are comparable, if even a bit lower. The team is also putting the exact same percentage of these balls in play. This is not a situation where they’re being too passive overall. (Whether they are swinging at worse pitches in general, or relying too much on guesswork, is a post for another day.)
The obvious, alarming difference is in their whiff and hit rate. Both of those are noticeably worse in 2021. They’re whiffing much more – two whole percentage points! – and getting far fewer hits. They’re struggling against fastballs, offspeed offerings, and breaking balls, too. It’s not like it’s just high-velocity fastballs giving them problems. In a word, that’s why the offense has been so frustrating to watch. Fans picked up on this as early as the first few week of the season, and it’s barely gotten easier to watch. The Yankees are always missing “their” pitch to hit. The Yankees probably lead the league in fan groans and the accompanying phrase: “ugh, that was the pitch.”
It’s not as simple as whiffing, though. They’re also making worse contact, even if their exit velocities remain high. They are putting balls in play at a lower overall angle (13 degrees compared to 14) and drilling it into the ground. In 2019-20, the Yankees had a 42.3% ground ball rate, which ranked 16th. In 2021, they have the 6th highest rate at 46%. That, it seems, is the key. You’re not going to hit many extra-base hits by killing the worms. And, in a depressed run environment overall, it’s hard to string together hits in the first place, let alone without extra-base hit power to accompany them. Hence the lower run production.
So, we’ve finally reached a diagnosis. The Yankees simply do not hit strikes anymore, and those they do are not being punished in the same way. They’re missing them more, and when they are putting them into play, they’re hitting them increasingly into the dirt. Worryingly, this diagnosis is also broadly applicable to the entire team. Consider:
- Just two batters (Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton) have a wOBA higher against strikes than the entire team’s .353 wOBA against such offerings in 2019-20.
- Only 5 have a wOBA higher than league average against strikes.
- 12 Yankee hitters who have seen at least 50 strikes this year have a sub-.300 wOBA against them, including DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres.
In other words, this is not a case where one person or a bad week or two is skewing the data. It has been a total, team-wide failure to hit strikes this year. It is inexplicable. While it may be easy and even righteous to blame Marcus Thames, I don’t think his offensive philosophy simply became “hey fellas, stop hitting strikes this year.”
I don’t think there is a clear prescription here, honestly. At least not one that I can think of. “Just hit the strikes” is not actionable advice, but it does define the problem. I’m at a loss for words and, honestly, I’d guess the Yankees are too. How was this predictable? And how do you fix it? Beats me.
Worse, it’s too late in the season for the “it will turn around” mantra to really hold much water. It should turn around, since it doesn’t make sense that a collection of good-to-great hitters simply forgot how to make good contact against pitches in the zone. But we’re now a third of the way through the season and the offensive malaise has not yet broken. If it’s going to, it’s going to start here, though. Of that, at least, we can be certain.