Yankees: Why New York’s bats are impotent so far in 2021

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 30: DJ LeMahieu #26 of the New York Yankees in action against the New York Mets at Yankee Stadium on August 30, 2020 in New York City. The Yankees defeated the Mets 8-7. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - AUGUST 30: DJ LeMahieu #26 of the New York Yankees in action against the New York Mets at Yankee Stadium on August 30, 2020 in New York City. The Yankees defeated the Mets 8-7. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /

Yankee batters are struggling at the plate a lot more in 2021 than in previous years. Hits and home runs seem few and far between compared 2017-2020. And when they do hit home runs, they tend to be without men on base.

There have been very few games in which the Yankees’ hit total and number of home runs have been high. The Savages have rarely been able to run up the score and dominate their opposition. Most Yankee games have been close and low-scoring.

Overall, batting averages across all of baseball have plummeted significantly. In 2000, the average batting average in MLB was .270. In 2010 this figure dipped to .257. This year the average declined even further, to a low of .234.

The Yanks’ batting average has declined precipitously from .262 in 2017 to .222 in 2021. Their 2021 batting average is one of the lowest in all of baseball at the moment. Likewise, the club’s slugging percentage dropped from .447 in 2017 to .381 this year, also one of the lowest in baseball.

Of course, the Bombers are not the only team in MLB that is experiencing this rough stretch. The Los Angeles Dodgers, who are supposed to be far and away the best squad in their quest to repeat as World Series champs, are going through it as well.

The Tampa Bay Rays, who played the Dodgers in the World Series just a few months ago, have regressed too. The Cleveland Indians have been no-hit twice this season.

Pundits have offered various explanations as to why hitting is suffering so much this year throughout MLB. Here are some possible reasons why.

Raining cats and dogs and the cold?

Maybe the cold and inclement weather has made hitting more difficult this early in the season. But the number of canceled games throughout the MLB is not substantially different than in recent years due to bad weather at this point. The Yanks, for example, have had only a couple of rain delays and no games canceled (or doubleheaders scheduled) due to bad weather.

Effects of an altered ball

For all of MLB, five of the six seasons with the highest home run rates in baseball history happened between 2016 and 2020 (the other came in 2000, amid the steroid era). Many observers of the game have argued that the ball was juiced during this period. Yet, representatives from MLB and Rawlings have argued that the ball was not intentionally altered and was manufactured the same way (in a single location in Costa Rica) during that time.

In early February, MLB announced that it would alter the baseball slightly in 2021. MLB reported that an independent lab found the new balls would carry one to two feet shorter on a ball hit over 375 feet. A few pitchers, such as San Diego Padres Blake Snell, have said that the laces are thicker, allowing them to throw effective breaking balls more easily.

Some commentators think that the new ball may be responsible for getting fewer extra-base hits and home runs. But it’s hard to explain how such small changes in the ball would dramatically impact batting average and home run production thus far in 2021 compared to the past. Most Yanks who go yard hit the ball out a good distance, usually a lot farther than just a couple of feet over the wall.

Pitchers in the fast lane

There has been a trend in strikeout rates, increasing considerably from about 16.4% of all plate appearances in 2005 to a record of approximately 23.4% in 2020. During this time, average fastball speeds have been moving toward 95 mph, and strikeouts have been annually outpacing hits.

It seems like both starters and relievers are now consistently throwing in the mid to high 90s—the increase in the speed of pitches affects all baseball teams, including the Savages.

Consequently, in April, MLB announced an experiment to move the mound back one foot to 61 feet, 6 inches, with hopes of leveling the playing field for besieged hitters. During the second half of the minor league Atlantic League season, the change will take place to analyze the efficacy of this moderation.

Many veteran fans are calling the idea heresy. The mound has always been the exact same distance throughout baseball history. Why change the distance now after all this time?

It remains to be seen whether this alteration in the distance of the mound from home plate will help hitters. I doubt it.

Still, this signals MLB’s strong concern over the increasing dominance of pitching in the game and the need to create a relatively equal performance balance between pitchers and hitters. Whether such an alteration will achieve its purpose – namely, a decrease in strikeout percentage and an increase in batting averages – and aid hitters is uncertain.

Today’s infielders are shifty

One of the most debated changes in baseball today is implementing defensive repositioning strategies or shifts. Such approaches involve moving fielders from their regular positions to areas batters are more likely to strike the ball. The use of shifts has increased dramatically since 2015.

This approach mainly involves packing the infield with defensive players on either the left or right side of the diamond. A small number of clubs have also applied this approach to the outfield by moving an infielder into the outfield, resulting in four outfielders defending (with three infielders remaining).

While it is hard to calculate the precise effect of shifts on individual batting averages at this point in time, it certainly appears that this strategy, derived from analytics and complex data, has decreased batting averages a great deal since the widespread adoption.

Yankee hitters tend to be moderate to strong pull hitters (with DJ LeMahieu being an obvious exception) and have struggled a great deal in 2021 with the infield shifts. Their inability or unwillingness to change their stroke and hit the opposite way is equivalent to watching a baseball version of Groundhog Day.

Along with more pitchers throwing in the mid- to high-90s, the dramatic increase in the use of shifts, in my view, explains why both the Bombers and the rest of MLB are finding it increasingly difficult to find holes in the infield.

MLB proposed a rule change be implemented first in the minor leagues requiring that all four infielders have both feet within the outer infield dirt border. Such a move is designed to restrict the range of the four infielders. It’s hard to see how this relatively minor change will have any significant, positive impact on batting averages. We will have to wait and see.

In watching the Yanks play thus far, it seems that the shift is placing a great deal of pressure on most players in the batter’s box. Thus far, Yankee hitters don’t seem to have a well-thought-out strategy about what to do when they come to the plate. Consequently, we see a lot more outs – infield ground balls, line drives, and pop flies – because they are pressing more than before.

As a result, the players are over-anxious and are not connecting solidly (if at all), leading to fewer hits and home runs. Who would have expected Gleyber Torres to hit only his first home run in the 34th game of the season?

If the team continues to ignore the shift issue and doesn’t figure out a way to address this challenge, players will continue to hit poorly, add outs, and lose games. This will, in turn, make it more difficult for the Bombers to make the playoffs.

It’s up to manager Aaron Boone and hitting coach Marcus Thames to right the ship sooner rather than later. This current run of form helps, but it needs to be maintained. A stretch like the first three weeks of April cannot happen again.