Where is the Yankee offense?

The fleeting emotions of Baseball are back for fans of America’s Pastime. As a baseball fan I have spent every November – February longing for the sport to return and March excitedly watching broadcasted Spring Training games. As a Yankee fan I can justify every poor Spring performance and exaggerate all the great ones. But as every fan knows, the when the lights come on in April – that means it is officially go time. Nothing about the pre-season hype matters when game 1 of 162 starts.

Historically the first month of baseball is not indicative of how a team or player’s season is going to end up. Most recently, in 2019, the Washington Nationals famously started 19-31 through their first 50 games and ended up winning the World Series. Despite this uncorrelated history, overreactions from some of the more rabid fanbases are inevitable if not expected. Maybe the team’s rookie has a terrible 0-21 start at the plate to start the season and you are finding yourself concerned if he can ever get a big league hit. Maybe the huge contract power hitter has not hit a home run through the first two weeks of the season and you’re starting to convince yourself that last season must have been steroid related. Or maybe you’re me and you’ve watched the Yankees lead the league in errors, double plays and baserunning mistakes and it makes you want to pull your hair out.

As I am writing this the Yankees have played 11 games and went 5-6 in them. It feels much worse, and I wanted to dive a little bit deeper into where the issues are on the offensive side of the ball. There is plenty to talk about when it comes to starting pitcher’s performance and length (outside of Gerrit Cole) and how that can deplete the bullpen sooner rather than later as well as defensive and baserunning issues; but that can be saved for another time watching Yankees games give me a mental breakdown. Regardless of the many issues, the biggest and most obvious Yankee issue right now is offense and there are three splits that help paint that picture.

Split #1: Yankees score 6 runs per game in wins and 2.3 runs per game in losses. (4 runs per game)

  • 2.3 runs per game is not going to do it for you. 4 runs per game is likely not going to do it for you. Adjusted for some of the major outliers the runs per game could look very ugly. What is causing this? From my summation 2 things:
    • The Yankees are built on homeruns and are not getting any of them. There are 20 teams who have hit more homers than the Yanks (puts them in the bottom 33% of the league) but yet the Yankees STILL have struck out more than 18 teams (bottom 40% of the league). Strike outs and home runs typically are correlated in baseball. Being bottom 40% of both of those statistics are not going to lead to positive results.
    • The f$%#ing double plays. It has been 11 games and I am ready to pull my hair out if I see another double play hit. The Yankees lead the league with 14 double plays (tied with the 8-3 Padres) and it feels like pitchers can induce them from the Yankees at will. DJ LeMahieu has hit as many double plays this season as he did last season in a fifth of the games. Aaron Hicks, who is known for NOT hitting double plays and bats third because of it, has already hit more than his season average.

Split #2: The Yankees OPS+* the first time facing the opposing Starting Pitcher is 46.

  • *So what does OPS+ mean? OPS+ is an all-encompassing offensive stat that includes a league and ballpark adjustment to determine how a team or player is doing offensively compared to the rest of the majors. The easiest way to understand it is that a perfectly average OPS+ is 100. An OPS+ of 101 or 99 would mean that player or team is doing 1% better or worse respectively than the rest of the league. It is not a perfect stat, but it is certainly helpful.
    • The Yankees are 54% worse than the rest of the league when it comes to seeing a starting pitcher for the first time. Even worse? The Yankees OPS+ in the first inning of games is 14! They are 86% worse than the average in the first innings of games.
    • In the first innings of games, they are batting 7 for 39 (all singles) with 3 walks and 19 strikeouts. No RBIs, no runs, nothing. The first time through the order the Yankees only have 3 RBIs total that are from a Gary Sanchez and Jay Bruce homerun. Gary’s homerun was in game 1.
  • In modern baseball teams cannot afford to allow their opponents 2-3 innings of time to get ahead while their offense does nothing. This gives the starting pitcher time to settle in, pitch more innings, and opens the door for higher leverage relievers to shut offenses down.

Split #3: The heart of the order (3-6 batters) has an OPS+ of 24 and an OPS of .455*.

  • This stat makes my heart hurt. The four batters that typically are meant to do the most damage are 76% worse than AVERAGE players would be. This is where you see guys who are supposed to be good to great like Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks and Gleyber Torres. (*The OPS (on base + slugging) for the league for the 3-6 batters is .749 – for the Yankees, its .455.)
  • The 1-2 hitters have an OPS+ of 103 (more or less average) but surprisingly, the 7-9 guys (typically the worst offensive players) have achieved an OPS+ of 222 or are 122% better than the average. If anyone is doing it for the Yankees right now, it is the bottom of the order doing their best to keep the ship afloat.

These three splits bring us to the big question, what is actually going on here? To be totally fair to the Yankees, it is likely too early to draw any major conclusions and I am even more likely not smart or talented enough to figure it out. (though I do of course have a theory)

Pitchers have so far been excellent against the Yankees at avoiding many elevated, “fly ball hittable” baseballs. Maybe this means they have been executing breaking pitches better, avoiding more elevated fastballs, and staying at the bottom third of the plate and lower. I can’t say for sure if this is happening, but it could explain why there have been a lack of homeruns and more than plenty double plays. With players like Judge, Stanton, and Sanchez who hit the ball harder than anyone in the league, pitching them low and working to induce ground balls seems like a decent (if executed correctly) way to reduce the damage they could do. This is my best guess, but either way I am confident the Yankees team and coaches will adjust to the ways they’ve been pitched to and revert closer (and hopefully well beyond) the average.

Go Yanks.

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