We expected the Bronx Bombers to continue being just that, an offensive juggernaut that ranks solidly among the top five offenses in the regular season. I mean, they’ve been constantly doing this ever since the Baby Bombers got here. How could we consider any other outcome?
Well, another outcome did indeed happen. And it was…not good. Now that’s everything is said and done for the Yankees, it’s time to check on why this happened.
So, let me get to my best Marvel’s “What If?” The Watcher’s voice, and say: Follow me, and ponder the question: What the hell happened to the 2021 Yankees’ offense?
The Overall Results
The Yankees scrambled their way to 711 runs. Good (?) for the 19th-best in MLB and a far cry from the leading pack of the AL, all who surpassed 820 (Astros, Rays, Jays, and Red Sox). Yeah, that’s not a good start but it’s a good place to assess the difference in hitting this year.
Let’s take a look at the overall macro-level advanced stats to see if they also agree with the simple Runs Scored evaluation. In terms of Statcast’s wOBA , the Yankees hit for a .317 value this season. A measly .003 higher than league average this season. This means, that in terms of the results the Yankees actually got from their performances at the plate, the Yankees were just so slightly better than the average MLB player. If you want to be mean, you can think of this offense results as a collection of nine José Iglesias this year… Yikes.
Taking a look at the wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created) for the season, the Yankees have a 101 value. This means they were exactly 1% better than the average hitter as a collective unit. This was kind of obvious after checking wOBA (wRC is based on that but adjusted with park and era factors), but still, it’s probably the best stat to measure the results.
So, were they really unlucky?
Sometimes Baseball can be weird like that: you hit the ball on the screws and it just finds its way into another dude’s glove (ask Gary Sánchez for more info). Luckily for us, the modernization of baseball stats allows us to measure these kind of things [silently celebrates this nerdy W]. So let’s do just that now.
There is no better place to start than with Statcast’s xwOBA, this is according to Baseball Savant:
Expected Weighted On-base Average (xwOBA)
xwOBA is formulated using exit velocity, launch angle and, on certain types of batted balls, Sprint Speed.
Pretty cool, though this is not the end-all-be-all because it doesn’t take into account the horizontal direction where the ball is going. But it’s still a pretty good measure. Heck, it even takes into account how slow your dudes are when certain batted balls require that.
If we go by this, the Yankees are…drumroll…the 6th best offense in MLB! Tied with the Dodgers at .327. Below the Jays, Astros, Red Sox, Twins (wut?), and Braves. That’s definitely not as bad, but there’s still around a .08 difference with the leading Jays and Astros. This means they had a .010 difference between their expected and actual stats, that’s the 3rd biggest difference just behind the Twins (rough year for you as well my dudes) and the A’s.
So yeah, it’s quite an easy conclusion that they were indeed really unlucky this year. We could finish this whole thing here and just go with that, but that’s boring on overly simplistic. Let’s dissect this thing to check where they can actually improve and be more in line with the Jays and Astros offense.
The PeripheralsEmbed from Getty Images
We’ll divide this into three main parts: quality of contact, batted ball profile, and plate discipline. We’ll measure all three of these parts on a team-wide basis, if we arrive at a troubling number we will look at possible culprits in terms of the players this season that had at least 200 batted ball events.
Quality of Contact
Oh yes, probably the Yankees’ favorite measure and my personal preference as well. Good things usually happen when you hit the damn ball hard.
Let’s start with good old average Exit Velocity. According to Statcast, the Bronx Bombers did indeed kill the ball as usual, with an 89.9 MPH value that’s tied with the Red Sox and the Twins (you guys are always here, huh?) for the second-best value in MLB, just behind the Baby Jays’ 90.3 MPH mark. That’s pretty good! Here the heavy lifting was done by the usual suspects: G & Judge who both had an average exit velo over 95 MPH (LOL). On the other hand, the laggards were Gardy and Gleyber who had values of 86.7 and 87.1 MPH, respectively. It’s not a good look for Gleyber that he’s hitting the ball practically just as hard as the 38-year-old Gardy.
In terms of Hard Hit Percentage, the Yankees actually led MLB this season. They hit the ball harder than 95 MPH on 42.6 percent of balls in play. Great stuff! As you might quite easily guess, Judge & G led the way here again with ridiculous rates north of 55 percent. The laggards were once again Gardy and Gleyber with painful 32.9 and 35.7 percent rates. Yikes.
Finally, let’s look at barrels per plate appearance. This, according to Statcast, is “the perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle”. That sounds nice, right?. The Yankees ranked fifth here with a 6.3 percent value that was just below the usual suspects: the Jays, Twins, Red Sox, and Braves. As for the leaders here we have the Stanton and Judge along with fellow big dude Joey Gallo. The trailers were Gardy yet again and sadly entering the culprit zone: DJ LeMahieu.
Starting to look at launch angle leads us to our next category:
Batted Ball Profile
Here we will look mostly at the angle of the ball and (of course) our mortal enemy this year, the grounders.
Let’s start by launch angle! We see quite an ugly result here for the good guys: they had an average Launch Angle of 12.5 degrees. That was tied with the Brewers for the 17th highest angle. The team leaders for this category were NL West juggernauts, the Dodgers and Giants. They had 14.8 and 14.7 degree launch angles, respectively, this season. We can find the usuals (Jays, Red Sox, Astros, and Braves) in the top ten. At a player level, we had Joey Gallo and the Kraken himself leading the team here; with DJLM and Gio Urshela really lagging with 5 (!) and 7.5-degree values respectively.
Now for the dreaded grounders. The Yankees ranked 19th with a 43.4 percent ground ball rate. Yet again, not good. The Giants led the way in keeping the worms alive, with a ridiculously low 39.7 percent mark. The main culprits here once again were Gio and LeMahieu with awful 47.8 and 52 percent (!!!!) numbers respectively.
It’s quite clear to see why both Gio and DJ struggled so much this year when looking at these values. Luckily for them, it’s easier to modify the attack angle of the bat than to teach guys to hit the ball hard. The great Giants offense this year was based on this very fact. They hired multiple hitting coaches that seemed to make their bats allergic to hitting the ball on the ground. Let’s hope the new hitting staff can change this. I am personally quite intrigued by the possibility of DJLM modifying his attack angle.
And that moves us to our last category (and perhaps the most important)…
This is a big part of the trademark of great Yankees teams. They walk a lot and make the pitchers work hard for those outs. So let’s see how this iteration of Bombers held up to that.
Let’s start with the good part. In terms of walks, the Yankees did keep their brand strong. They led MLB with a 10.2 percent BB-rate, quite comfortably above the Dodgers’ 9.8 percent. That does the job for sure. Here the leaders were unsurprisingly Gallo with his ridiculous 16.2 percent mark, and a bit less so Gardy with his 13 percent. You would think pitchers would attack him more given his quality of contact but hey, pitching is hard. Sadly there was one person holding this league-leading team back, and that was Urshela and his horrible 4.5 walk rate. You are my dude forever Gio, but that has to go up.
Now, the not-so-good part. In terms of strikeouts the Yankees were the sixth worst team in MLB with their 24.5 percent strikeout rate. Quite far away from the leading Astros and Jays that had a 19.4 and 20.1 K-rate respectively. The main culprit here was again, unsurprisingly, Gallo and his 38.6 percent K-rate, with Luke Voit a distant second with his 30.7 percent.
This last part is quite a conundrum. It’s not a foreign concept to anyone that HR’s positively correlate with K’s. Homers are undoubtedly great, and teams that homer a lot tend to retain their offense in the tougher games of October than teams that don’t. But, there is indeed a tendency that teams that K less do better in the postseason (if you have a chance to read this The Athletic article please do, it is just amazing). It’s not a huge difference, but there is indeed some evidence to that. This is partly explained because of the increase of high-velocity pitchers in October, against which contact hitters seem to do better.
So, taking all that into account. I think the “too many strikeouts” crew mostly over-amplifies this issue. It’s not the best thing of course but when the guys that K more are absolute mashers like Judge, G & Gallo you can live with it. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to improve there, either. There are guys available that have amazing power and managed to avoid the strikeouts a lot last year: Correa, Seager, and Olson come to the top of my mind. And it does seem from Cashman’s presser that they will try to address this issue, but they should do that by adding some of those elite guys mentioned instead of trading Gallo away for sure.
Also, you can try to improve there by trying to get contact guys like Gio and DJ to hit the ball more in the air. They were their premier contact hitters and both struggled this season. That leads us to the other issue: the Yankees need to stay away from the grounders more as a team. This last part makes me hopeful about the changes coming with a hopefully modern hitting coaching staff.
Finally, I can’t emphasize this enough. This offense was in no way as bad as the results it had. They were severely unlucky and should’ve been around a top five offense in MLB. There is probably positive regression coming that way.