Thursday, April 28, 2016

How Much Hope Should We Have for the Yankees Offense?

On Twitter over the past few days, I've seen the Yankees offense compared to a dumpster fire and Lloyd Christmas throwing up in his mouth. Both of those metaphors work right now, as the team has scored the fourth-fewest runs in baseball this season. After a couple offensive outbursts in the first series of the season against Houston, the bats have looked mostly anemic. Specifically, the left-side infielders have combined to hit like the long-brimmed version of Smalls, the bench-warmers have played like bench-warmers, and Alex Rodriguez has looked every bit the 14,701-day-old he is.

Didi Gregorius has a .238/.246/.365 line. (Photo via wsj.com)
Sure, it's a small sample size of just 20 games so far, but it's not as small of a sample size when you add all of the players' at-bats together. Then it starts getting a lot more worrisome. Or does it?

I scoured a bunch of team stats pages for reasons -- any reasons -- to hope for better results as the calendar turns to May. As it turns out, there are some stats to which glass-half-full fans can cling. First, five of the Yankees' starting position players are hitting above league average, according to wRC+, and most of those guys have been well above average. Brian McCann, Starlin Castro, Brett Gardner, Mark Teixeira, and Carlos Beltran are all pulling their weight.

Even some of the players who haven't been hitting can take solace in the fact that the team's batting average on balls in play is currently among the lowest in the league, and BABIP tends to stabilize toward the mean as the season goes on. Ditto for the Yankees' inability to hit with runners in scoring position, which partly explains the team's struggles to score runs despite a pretty average team on-base percentage. The Yanks have left the eighth-most runners in scoring position per game, and timely hitting tends to even out over the long season.

On a smaller scale, fans can take comfort in the team's base-running metrics, which rank near the top of the league. They Yankees are among the leaders in stolen bases after finishing just 25th in that stat last season.

So...excitement!...Right?

On a much smaller scale, the Yankees do make contact at an elite rate, and the world champion Royals have advocated that approach for the last few years.

So that's the good news. Now, the bad. First, even those positive stats contain some reasons to be skeptical. The five players mentioned as hitting above league average all carry their own doubts. Notably, Castro has regressed after a torrid start, and Teixeira and Beltran are old and injury-plagued. The updated Steamer projections forecast that, of that core quintet, only Teixeira will finish the season at least 10 percent better than the league-average hitter. The system pegs the rest of the lineup at mediocre or worse.

Beyond the best five regulars and the other starters who have struggled, the bench has been weaker than Lieutenant Dan's legs. Aside from a few good at-bats by Ronald Torreyes and Austin Romine in very limited playing time, the Yanks have gotten little production from platoon players. Aaron Hicks -- who many fans hoped would have a strong year after a change of scenery -- has been almost a non-factor, especially if we don't give him extra credit for his insane throw last week. The weak start by Hicks has many fans pining for the days of Chris Young teeing off against lefties.

With regard to the team's strong base-running so far, it's still been worth only about a half-win. For as much hoopla followed Ellsbury's steal of home, it was still worth just one run, albeit a big one. Point is, nobody's confusing this year's Yankees with the 1985 Cardinals. As for the high contact percentage, it probably doesn't do much good if the team lacks power. Which brings us to...

...the ugly news. (Dammit, I promised myself I wouldn't resort to a Clint Eastwood-themed progression in this post.) The Yankees offense has produced some stats that are cabbie-in-Home Alone 2-level ugly. The unit sits among the league's bottom-feeders in slugging percentage, isolated power, and hard-hit percentage. They're ahead of just lowly Atlanta in extra base hits. Those stats help explain why watching the Yankees has felt like observing a fly-swatting competition over the past couple weeks. Remember, the team plays in Yankee Freaking Stadium, one of the best slugging parks in the league every year. The power numbers should artificially improve based on park factors as the season wears on, but it won't necessarily mean that the Yankees offense is very potent.

Back to the bright side very quickly: When I Google-searched "yankees offensive woes", the first three entries weren't even from this season. Now, back to the dark side: Squint hard and check out the "answer" posed by that fourth entry.



So if Nick Swisher figures to be the savior this year, I'd probably put my money on the offense settling in at the middle or bottom of the pack over a full campaign. Sure, it's still April, so nobody really knows anything. (Well, other than the fact that the Cubs are the class of MLB.) But we can still make some educated guesses about what the summer and fall hold.

So what can Yankees fans pin their hopes to? Maybe this weekend against Boston, A-Rod will continue the vintage form he displayed in crushing a homer against Texas on Wednesday night. Maybe the entire lineup will get a much-needed jumpstart against Boston's equally-impotent starting pitching staff. (Who wins the battle between bad pitching and bad hitting?) Maybe Didi Gregorius and Chase Headley will turn into the solid hitters they've been at various points in their respective careers. Maybe Aaron Judge will be called up in a few weeks to become the Yankees' version of 2015 Miguel Sano. Maybe MLB will ban the shift. Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe.

Based on the surface and underlying stats the offense has produced so far, though, it would be unrealistic to expect a true Bronx Bombers lineup this season. Good thing the beauty of baseball is that some teams' maybes come true every season.


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Follow Francis Tolan on Twitter @frantweet

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