Writing about baseball in mid-January can be a chore. There are no games to analyze and rarely any big news to break. The process of generating ideas is typically reduced to hours of leaderboard sorting in hopes of finding a thread that might just lead to something interesting. It was that process that led me to stumble upon a somewhat worrisome Yankee trend:
|Year||Team BABIP||MLB Rank|
This being a Baseball Prospectus site, most readers will be familiar with the concept of Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). For the uninitiated, what this table denotes is that not only have the Yankees been surprisingly poor at turning their batted balls into hits, but that it’s actually been an issue for some time now. Over the past four seasons, only the Oakland A’s, notorious laggers in this area due to the expansive foul territory of the Oakland Coliseum, have been worse.
Here’s a thread that may be worth pulling.
At first glance, there are a lot of small things about the makeup of the 2013-2016 Yankees that might suggest a poor BABIP. For instance, the team hit the fourth-most infield flies in that time span. Infield flies are essentially automatic outs, so that would certainly have a negative effect on the team’s ability to generate hits. Similarly, we know that fly balls become hits less often than ground balls, and the Yankees of recent history have been more inclined to put the ball in the air than on the ground. In addition to that, the Yankees haven’t been a team especially designed for speed, which has helped make them below average at picking up both infield and bunt hits.
All those factors piled up might reasonably explain a below-average BABIP…a sort of ‘death by thousand paper cuts’ scenario. The Yankees haven’t just been below average though, they’ve consistently been one of the worst teams in the league at hitting ‘em where they ain’t. With a league-average line drive percentage it doesn’t appear that quality of contact is the culprit, and with four straight years of evidence we can’t just chalk it up to bad luck, either. Are defenses somehow just playing astoundingly well against them? As it turns out, yes…in a way.
No team in baseball has been shifted more than the Yankees over the past four years. In fact, the Yanks have seen 300 more shifts than the next-closest team. You might think that all those extra reps would help familiarize the team with non-traditional defenses, but in reality the exact opposite has been true.
For some context, let’s look at the Mariners, who have been the second-most shifted team in baseball over that same timespan. They’ve posted a .681 OPS in such situations. The A’s and Red Sox come next, and they’ve managed marks of .681 and .733, respectively. The Yankees’ OPS against the shift since 2013? 603. That’s not only the worst mark in baseball, but it’s nearly 30 points lower than the 29th-ranked Angels. In short, defenses have been right to shift the Yankees so much, as they’ve been downright atrocious at beating it.
Unfortunately for Yankee fans, the shift is almost certainly not going anywhere. In our four-year sample alone, the number of shifts in Major League Baseball has quadrupled from 8,545 in 2013 to 34,801 last season. If the Yankees are unable to adapt, defenses will continue to smother them with this tactic. The good news is that the team may have already fixed the problem while no one was noticing.
|Yankees Against the Shift Sorted by PA (2013-2016)|
It’s hard to swim when you’re wearing cinder blocks for shoes, and for years those cinder blocks were named Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira. In many ways the duo is a microcosm of the very team struggles we noted earlier; no Yankees were shifted more often than McCann and Teix, and no one performed worse against it.
McCann alone amassed the third-most plate appearances in baseball versus the shift since 2013 (1,046), with three of those seasons coming in pinstripes (one in Atlanta). Teixeira, meanwhile, picked up 674 plate appearances of his own, good for 23rd in the league despite missing almost an entire season to injury. Combined, the two produced a .237/.234/.283 batting line, and by wRC+ were the two worst hitters in baseball in such situations (minimum 500 PA).
Both of those guys still managed to be above-average cogs in the Yankee lineup despite their deficiencies against the shift, so I don’t mean to overstate my case. The fact remains though that this is an area in which the Yankees have struggled mightily, due in no small part to those two players specifically. Of course, neither Teixeira nor McCann are Yankees any longer, with the former now retired and the latter having been dealt to Houston in mid-November. Perhaps, at least in terms of this one aspect, this will prove to be addition by subtraction.
Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird are expected to assume most of the freed-up plate appearances at catcher and first base in 2017. Both of them saw a fair share of shifts during their short major league stints, and like their predecessors, both struggled to beat them. Still, we’re talking about extremely small sample sizes for extremely young players, so it’s impossible to draw any kind of meaningful conclusions at this point. At the very least, McCann and Teixeira didn’t set a high bar for them to clear. Based on that, it would not be surprising if the Yankees’ BABIP fortunes finally began to turn this upcoming season.
Lead photo: Adam Hunger / USA Today Sports