TAMPA — The Yankees can hit all the damn home runs they want, no matter how much it infuriates the pro-sacrifice-bunt crowd. Their true downfall, as it were, has been too many damn strikeouts.
That’s what they’ll aim to amend this season, and since you can change only so many leopards’ spots among the returning talent, new guy DJ LeMahieu represents an important cog in this effort.
“I’d rather hit to get on base than walk,” LeMahieu said Tuesday morning at George M. Steinbrenner Field.
That contradicts the old adage, “A walk is as good as a hit,” and on an individual basis, you’ll take the guy with the lower batting average and higher on-base percentage — like new $70 million man Aaron Hicks, for instance — over a player with the higher batting average and lower on-base percentage. When you put together a group of guys all like that, however, you risk imbalance.
And the truth is out there: The Yankees finished second in the major leagues in runs scored each of the last two seasons. Which sounds great, except that the industry leader each year — the Red Sox in 2018 and the Astros in 2017 — won both their respective divisions and the World Series title.
And those rivals reached that peak because they hit for higher averages than the Yankees — who led the majors in homers both seasons, setting a major league record last year with 267 — and didn’t strike out as much. The Red Sox led everyone with a .268 batting average last year, striking out 1,253 times (fourth least in the American League), whereas the Yankees ranked 15th overall with a .249 batting average and fanned 1,421 times, third-most in the AL. Those numbers grew worse from .262 and 1,386 in 2017, the result primarily of acquiring Giancarlo Stanton — who, on the plus side, helped raised the homer count.
“Generally, we’ll continue to stress more contact with the guys we have, and obviously importing [LeMahieu] gives us a different look than some of the other guys in the lineup at the same time,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said before rain canceled the Yankees-Phillies game. “So hopefully, he can be who he is, and then everybody else can improve by a tick. And we’ll see who takes us anywhere.”
The Yankees haven’t implemented any drills across the board to emphasize contact as you’ll find across the state with the Mets and their new hitting coach (and former Yankee) Chili Davis. Rather, “I think it’s a little more individual, but I think [hitting coach] Marcus [Thames] talks about it with them,” manager Aaron Boone said. “And I think it’s even a focus for some guys.”
Stanton’s 211 strikeouts last year blew past his previous career high of 170 (set in 2014), so maybe the year’s adjustment to the Yankees will drop that count, and perhaps the same can occur for sophomores Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres. Nevertheless, most of these returning Yankees are not “batting-average guys.” The ninth-year veteran LeMahieu is; his .298 career mark trails only Andujar (.300), who has played just one full big-league season.
“We felt from an athletic standpoint defensively, he was capable of obviously [playing] first, second and third. And then from an offensive standpoint, there were certain characteristics in his hitting profile that we gravitated to,” Cashman said. “Certainly the contact rate is one of them. But we think he’s a professional hitter.”
Even in a 2018 that represented a down year for him, LeMahieu hit .276 for the Rockies, which would have placed him ahead of every Yankee besides Andujar (.297) and Aaron Judge (.278). His contact rate of 87.5 percent ranked 11th among qualified hitters; Brett Gardner (87.6 percent) was the lone Yankee to do better.
“I feel like I’m a pretty aggressive hitter,” said LeMahieu, who struck out 82 times and walked 37 times in 581 plate appearances last season.
“This is a pretty good lineup,” LeMahieu contended, and it sure is. Can he help it graduate into the very best lineup and offense? The answer could determine whether the Yankees, after a nine-year drought, win a damn championship.
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