The Yankees are good despite their plate discipline (or lack thereof)

© Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I have good news for the Yankees. Their collective 120 wRC+ is tied for first among all baseball teams, a feat that seems to be an amalgamation of skill rather than luck. Concrete example: they are at the top of the league in every Statcast metric imaginable, including average output velocity, hard hit rate and barrel rate. By hitting baseballs at lightning speeds, the Yankees turn them into valuable off-base hits. It’s an ideal process, especially in a season where said successes have been harder to find.

Then I have less good news about the Yankees. It’s something I noticed while watching Joey Gallo. The left-handed slugger recently recorded his first two homers of the season, but his overall batting line is still underwater. He hits over 40% of the time, and what little contact he makes hasn’t returned much. You might think it’s because Gallo is going after pitches he shouldn’t at the Javier Baez, but last season he ran one of the best out-of-zone swing rates. The problem is that even when offered an attractive pitch, he has a horrible tendency to sniff it out. When Gallo breaks down, he doesn’t do it in a way that’s the least bit flattering.

This season has been different in the worst possible way. Not only is Gallo missing out on reachable locations, but he’s also chasing ones he didn’t have before. His chase rate went from 19.2% last season to a career-worst 30.5%. He’s not the only Yankee to exhibit this backward progression, however. I smell a graph! Below is a scatterplot containing hitters with at least 300 plate appearances in 2021 and 50 in 22. On the x-axis are their chase rates from last year, and on the Here are their continuation rates for this year:

A metric like O-Swing% (i.e. flush rate) tends to be reliable from year to year, so the points are clustered to form a linear relationship. But all those disparate yellow dots? They’re all Yankees hitters, and of the eight included, five (besides Gallo, they represent Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Giancarlo Stantonand Gleyber Torres) are well above the displayed trendline. The other three are Judge Aaron, DJ LeMahieuand Anthony Rizo; that they’ve led the Yankees offense thus far is perhaps unsurprising. This plot leaves out Aaron Hicks, who hasn’t had enough plate appearances in 2021 to qualify but currently hovers just 14.3% of shots out of the zone. He makes his team better. Still, overall, no other team is chasing at a higher ball rate than last season:

This is a puzzling development when you consider recent history. The Yankees’ offense could have been worse than just decent (101 wRC+) last season had it not been for a 24.6 percent chase rate, good for third place behind the Dodgers and Giants. It represented a continuation from 2020, when the Yankees were second in chase rate, and the year before, when they were ninth. For a time, this is a team that has established an ironclad sense of discipline at home plate. Now suddenly the Yankees are heading in the opposite direction. They’re still in great shape, but this change seemingly out of nowhere is another reason why baseball doesn’t always make sense.

Now, a stellar formation doesn’t necessarily need top-notch discipline – the current Yankees are an example of how this is possible. But in general, even though swing decisions aren’t as important as, say, bat speed, they are nevertheless an integral part of a team’s offensive production. While we’re on the subject, we may as well examine the relationship between the two in depth. First, here is the basic correlation between team pursuit rate and wRC+ since 2008:

Swing-loving teams tend to have poor offenses, but again the relatively flat trendline shows that there are plenty of exceptions to the rule. The plot doesn’t do the best job of capturing why discipline matters. We can easily spot the individual teams, but not the overall picture, which is that the absence of discipline has a much greater impact than its presence. Before coming to this conclusion, I started by sorting the teams above into different groups based on their O-Swing% percentile, then calculated the average wRC+ of each group. Here is a table with the resulting calculations. In this case, a higher percentile means a team has swung on more pitches outside the zone:

How does O-Swing% affect offense?

Percentile O-Swing % Sample wRC+ medium
<25th 95 101
from 25 to 50 92 96.5
50th to 75th 103 95.7
>75th 100 92.9

It’s up to his own interpretation, but in my opinion, swing decisions are kind of a low-ceiling, high-flooring skill set. When chase rate is isolated, we can see that an elite rating only grants teams a league average offense (101 wRC+). On the other hand, we can also see that a low rating limits teams to a significantly below average attack (93 wRC+). Good teams may not need top-notch discipline, but that means they’ll be in an uphill battle. To elaborate, the group below the 25th percentile actually contains 45 teams that are below average offensively by wRC+. Swing decisions alone don’t move the needle much. But when you realize that the pool above the 75th percentile only contains 15 teams (out of 100!) who are above-average, its value becomes apparent. Refraining from swinging out of the zone won’t get the most bang for a team’s buck, but it would be foolish not to.

Going back to the Yankees, who belong to this latter group, they may be in worse shape than previously thought. Other elements of their attacking game make up for Gallo and company swinging on sliders in the dirt, but how long can they last? The Yankees’ first 10 or so games this season showed what happens when there’s a lack of discipline without the hits to cover it. Plus, the question remains as to why the Yankees gave up their patience. On this subject, it is difficult to ignore the presence of a possible new philosophy. After spending three years as the minor league batting coordinator, Dillon Lawson became New York’s primary hitting coach this offseason. I don’t know what ideas he has in mind, and I doubt anyone but those within the organization knows for sure. And for his value, no coach would want his guys to tackle pitches outside the zone. Is the increased hunt rate an unintended consequence of what he’s trying to accomplish? Perhaps.

Of course, it’s also a different Yankees team than last year, so it’s not like longtime players are adding aggression. en masse. A new batting swap could reasonably have an all-encompassing, synergistic influence across an entire lineup. But the fact remains that most Yankees are underperforming against their base chase rates, regardless of how many years they’ve been in the pinstripes. And while chase rate alone cannot provide a complete assessment of a batter’s swing decisions – a subject explored by Ben Clemens yesterday – how you react to throws out of the zone probably matters the most. If a batter pursues a pitch outside the zone, he must compensate with several hits inside the zone. This is the price to pay.

There’s no reason to panic, though – we’re still in a little sampling territory here, even when it comes to a metric like O-Swing%. We’re pretty much at the point where swing-based metrics “stabilize”, but it all means we can now weigh this year’s numbers more heavily than last year’s to project a player’s performance into the future. Even then, what a player has done before will still matter a lot going into the season, and the Yankees have a long history of prioritizing plate discipline and recruiting hitters who possess it. Gallo has never been so blind, and the same can be said of Donaldson and Kiner-Falefa. It’s safe to bet on their chase rates dropping, despite recent at-bats suggesting otherwise.

If anything, the fact that the Yankees are this good even with an inflated chase rate shows just how scary they are. In many ways, their destruction of opposing teams reminds me of the 2019 Twins. The famous Bomba Squad had the 19th best chase rate in the league, but scored like no other thanks to a penchant for crushing baseballs . Fittingly, this lineup has the highest wRC+ (116) of the many members of this group above the 75th percentile. In an interview earlier this year, Lawson said his approach to striking could be summed up as “the blow hits hard”. The Yankees are doing just that, albeit at the (so far) minor but potentially significant cost of indulging in bad swings. We’ll see how it holds up. It’s interesting to think, though, that this might just represent a new normal.

The stats in this article are for matches on May 1.

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