As the Yankees start the offseason, they find themselves short on left-handed hitters.
Last season, the Yankees had Brett Gardner, Didi Gregorius, Mike Tauchman and Aaron Hicks as lefties to balance out their lineup. Of those players, only Tauchman remains healthy and under contract for 2020. Hicks is out until at least midseason while Gardner and Gregorius could each leave in free agency, though Gardner’s return would be mutually beneficial.
For the rest of the lineup, Miguel Andujar is set to return, and the Yankees are hoping for renewed health from Giancarlo Stanton. If they get back to full health, the team could become even more right-handed heavy in 2020.
The stacking of right-handers doesn’t suit Yankee Stadium. Some of those right-handed batters, namely DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Judge, hit the ball the opposite way enough to take advantage of the cozy confines of River Avenue. The Stadium, though, is designed for left-handed pull hitters.
Still, a team doesn’t require left-handed batters to win a title. The Yankees came within six wins in October with few lefties in their lineup, while the Astros were similarly right-handed heavy beyond Michael Brantley and Yordan Alvarez. The 2018 Red Sox had Andrew Benintendi high in their lineup, but Mookie Betts, J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts carried the team.
The value of splitting up same-sided hitters doesn’t jump off the page. If your hitters can hit lefties and righties, what does it matter how the lineup is balanced? The Yankees, for one, clearly believe in balance. They had Brett Gardner spend most of the postseason hitting third in the lineup, a notable display that the Yankees value having a left-handed batter to break up the righties.
The evidence is more anecdotal than obvious. Pitchers talk about how they get a mental break when similarly profiled hitters are stacked, and teams value the platoon advantage enough to match up batter-to-batter, pitcher-to-pitcher.
The balance a left-handed batter provides could become more vital in 2020 with two new rules in play. First, the three-batter minimum for pitchers. This almost eliminates LOOGYs, with Oliver Perez (Cleveland) as one of the few still under contract. Pitchers such as Andrew Chafin and Ryan Buchter will struggle to remain rostered.
Therefore, if teams can’t bring in a lefty to face just one or two batters, then left-handed hitters should get more opportunities late in games with the platoon advantage.
Though lefties should derive an advantage, the change could be minuscule. Righties could get smaller but similar boost from ROOGY’s also legislated out of the game. There are enough southpaws at the back of bullpen that sport a platoon advantage but can get righties out enough to remain effective, with Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton and Josh Hader as good though high-end examples.
But offenses will have another counter with a 26th man on the roster, a rule that stipulates teams must carry 13 position players. That means teams can also put a lefty in the lineup and feel free to pinch hit without available counters in the opposing bullpen, or vice versa. Teams can game the platoon advantage more often offensively and left-handed batters could be chief beneficiaries.
The Yankees should have ample opportunities to add southpaws to their offense this offseason. Gardner could sign any day as a stopgap for Hicks in center field. Didi and hitters including Mike Moustakas or Eric Thames are on the free agent market and could give New York upgrades, with the trade market yet another option.
If the Bombers roll into next season without adding left-handed batters, they’ll leave themselves susceptible to right-handed heavy pitching staffs. Houston in this postseason was a good example, as the Astros didn’t bother rostering a lefty to counter the New York’s southpaws. It doesn’t jump out as a need like an ace starting pitcher, but a left-handed bat should still be high on the Yankees’ priorities this winter.