The Yankees Can’t Hit Strikes Anymore

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.

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10 Comments

  1. MG309

    This team, win or lose tonight, is a joke. They should have about a 5 run lead I n.v stead of 1 and having 2 guys thrown out on the bases in the same inning has to be an historic first. The 62 Mets, on their worst day, could run the bases better

  2. Terry from LA

    I can’t take anymore of Ford. And STOP hitting Odor second OR cleanup for god’s sake! I’ve said for the past couple years the best way to beat the Yankees is to throw the ball right down the middle and they’ll either take it or miss it or foul it. I don’t blame Marcus. But I do blame Boone and the coaches for the total lack of fundamentals. The past couple years they’ve gotten away with it because of the HR’s. Not so much anymore. Bring back Buck!

  3. All you doomsayers, take heed: three homers in last two games from Miggy Missiles and Clint “Swinging Makes Me Nervous” Frazier. Judge is 4 dingers off the MLB lead. This season has been like watching grass grow if grass played baseball and couldn’t hit a spinning slider or center-cut fastball to save its life. Or run the bases. Jfc. No excuse for DJLM, Torres, Stanton, Sanchino, etc… but hey look Clint lasered a spinner out last night, eh? Let’s hope we get good Monty tonight and then there’s Cole on getaway day. Keep the faith.

  4. dasit

    gittens has an 80 not-mike-ford tool
    get him up here

  5. James M Dunn

    This is on the players but also onbthe coaching staff, hmmm which one is easier and cheaper to change out?🤔. Bottom line is this team lacking in the fundamentals: base running, situational hitting, defensive awareness. Thats on the coaches plain and simple and has unfortunately been an issue throughout Boone’s term as manager. Add on the curious lineup choices and bad game management and it shows a need for change. Now the morale which was supposedly a Boone specialty is badly frayed, i think it is time.

  6. BroussardYankee

    All of this begs the question of what to do with this team as presently constituted. I agree that for the short term bringing up Gittens (what do we have to lose?) and finding an OFer who can hit over .200 need to be done. My bigger concern is that the window for this team is closing. They are locked into long term contracts with Cole, DJLM, Stanton, and Hicks (aka Ellsbury redux). The rest of this team is movable. If Tampa’s $82 million team can outplay us consistently, then we are doing something wrong. Sanchez, Frazier, and now Torres and DJLM are major disappointments. Please no more Ford. Gardner has been a Yankee stalwart but his time has passed. Maybe Andujar is salvageable. With the exceptions of Judge, Urshela, and Stanton (during the infrequent brief periods when he is not injured), they are just not a very good team. I think Coach Parcell’s aphorism that you are as good as your record says you are applies to this team. They are now a third place and close to a fourth place team who were just swept by one of the worst teams in MLB.

  7. umbrellaman

    Fascinating. As a team, the Yankees are simply not squaring up the ball, missing entirely more or hitting the ball (hard) on the ground – thus the increase in GIDP.

    This would give credence to the ball not just being deadened but also having more movement. But is there a reason why the Yankees hitters would be more affected by that in a systematic way? Or why big hitters like Judge and Stanton might be affected less than line drive guys like Gleyber and DJ?

    .

    • I think that second point is part of it: Those guys are just too strong. So they’re over whatever physical strength threshold needed where the ball doesn’t matter as much. Yankees have, perhaps, a fair amount of medium-power guys who adapted to the environment, and then a couple of Hulks.

      I don’t exactly know what can be done about it, and what getting a new coach would do, I don’t know either. But call up Gittens, because he seems to simply be strong as hell.

  8. novymir

    1) Torres – what happened to his power?
    2) DJ – even more startling.
    3) Sanchez – lost cause. Still pulling off the ball trying to pull everything
    4) Black holes at first, and all outfield when Judge is the DH.

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