The Yankees were dethroned as the home run kings of Major League Baseball this year, barely ceding the title to their divisional-round playoff opponents: The Minnesota Twins, who smashed a record 307 blasts to the Yankees’ 306.
Still, despite an unprecedented run of injuries up and down their lineup in 2019, the Yankees were a better offensive team over all than last season. And amid all the runs scored and balls sent over the fence this season, one Yankees statistic stands out: 89.7.
That was the average exit velocity — the ball’s speed in miles per hour immediately after contact — of every ball batted into play by the Yankees this season, according to Statcast. It was nearly 2 m.p.h. more than the 2019 major league average and the highest team average since exit velocity started being measured in 2015.
With so many replacement players and moving parts in the Yankees lineup this season, how was that possible?
“It’s the shirts,” said Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner, smiling as he retrieved from his locker a T-shirt that had become popular in the clubhouse. The lettering across the chest read: “EXIT VELO CITY.”
The Yankees have long been known as the Bronx Bombers for their home run-blasting legacy and the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium beloved by hitters. The offensive environment across the major leagues, too, has changed: Home run rates were at an all-time high, questions persisted about changes in the ball itself, and there will always be wariness about performance enhancing drugs, despite testing, given the sport’s history.
But it is no accident that the Yankees have amassed a collection of genuine ball bruisers. With a combination of scouting, analytics, coaching and some luck, the Yankees quite literally built baseball’s most powerful offense — one that fueled the team through all of its injuries.
“Our internal philosophy is to hit strikes hard,” said General Manager Brian Cashman. “And we certainly gravitate to players that can do that on a consistent basis. That will serve you well because, bottom line, if you put strikes in play with a lot of exit velocity, it puts a ton of pressure on the opposing defense to try to convert that ball into an out. And if you can do it in the air, especially, you have a chance to avoid those defenders and put it in the stands or in the alleys, and get extra-base hits and slug.”
There are plenty of strategies and philosophies to building an offense, but slugging has become the best predictor of success. Seven of the top 10 teams in exit velocity and eight of the top 10 in slugging percentage reached the postseason this year. Several of them were among the highest-scoring offenses in baseball, starting with the Yankees at 5.82 runs per game, just ahead of the Twins.
So how do you construct a lineup of players who can send the ball flying at ridiculous speeds? Step one: find some large human beings.
Yankees slugger Aaron Judge, at 6-foot-7 and 282 pounds, has led the major leagues in exit velocity each of the past three seasons. This year, his exit velocity averaged 95.9 m.p.h., ahead of Miguel Sano (6-4 inches, 272 pounds, 94.4 m.p.h. average exit velocity) and Nelson Cruz (6-2, 230, 93.7 m.p.h.), both of the Twins. (As a team, the Twins were third in the majors with an average exit velocity of 89.4 m.p.h.)
“I’m just trying to get the barrel to the ball,” Judge said. “If I do that, then the exit velo and home runs will come.”
Still, the Yankees made up for long injury layoffs for several of their hardest-hitting sluggers — including missing Judge for 54 games and the 6-foot-6, 245-pound Giancarlo Stanton for 141 games — with new additions, improved hitters and lots of hard contact, regardless of size. All-Star infielder Gleyber Torres, who is much smaller than Judge and Stanton, led the team with 38 home runs.
“There’s a correlation between a guy who is big and strong, and being able to hit the ball hard,” said P.J. Pilittere, the Yankees’ assistant hitting coach. “But everybody in here is doing a good job of hitting balls hard. And we’re doing that within reason, not changing our swings and not doing too much. We want our guys to be our guys, whatever your max is.”
Trailing Judge in exit velocity on the Yankees this season: the rookie first baseman Mike Ford (91.9 m.p.h.), infielder D.J. LeMahieu (91.7 m.p.h.), catcher Gary Sanchez (91 m.p.h.), and third baseman Gio Urshela (90.5 m.p.h.). First baseman Luke Voit was among the hardest hitters in baseball last season, but he was slowed this year by a sports hernia injury, and his average exit velocity dipped slightly, to 89.7 m.p.h. (still above average).
All five hitters are at least 6 feet tall and 215 pounds, and each was targeted by the Yankees because of certain traits.
The Yankees signed LeMahieu to a two year, $24-million deal last winter because of his defensive versatility and high-contact swing. But before coming to the Yankees, he was still hitting the ball hard, only at a lower angle. By toggling his approach at the plate, LeMahieu produced a career-best year: a .326 average, 26 home runs and 102 R.B.I.
“There’s no secret to our lineup: It’s a good combination of a lot of talent and good approaches,” said LeMahieu, an All-Star this summer.
The latter — selective hitting — was the key, according to Yankees hitting coach Marcus Thames, to hitting the ball hard. Manager Aaron Boone, coaches and players used the phrase “control the strike zone” ad nauseam because it was their foundation. While they still struck out at a major-league average rate this season, the Yankees were in the bottom third in baseball at swinging at pitches outside the strike zone.
Sanchez, for example, rebounded from a rough 2018 to hit 34 home runs partly by better targeting the pitches he could hit hard, i.e. low ones.
“If you get the ball in your zone where you do damage, you’re going to hit it hard,” Thames said. “That’s what we want to do, and we preach it all the way from the major league level all the way down” through the minor leagues.
Reminding hitters to always use their best swing in specific parts of the strike zone may seem like an obvious directive, but Cashman and Boone both noted that ever-more-sophisticated resources throughout the entire organization have made it easier to convert that message into on-field results.
“Between biomechanics, between technology, between data feeds, there’s so much helpful guidance that allow a coach to connect to a hitter and that allow a hitter to recognize what’s real,” Cashman said.
One upshot of the focus on identifying prime pitches: The Yankees produced a 1.157 on-base-plus-slugging-percentage on the first pitch of a plate appearance this season — the highest mark in Baseball Reference’s pitch data since 1988.
While honing their approach is part of the equation, identifying and acquiring the right type of hitters is just as crucial. Much like the Houston Astros have built a reputation for helping pitchers (like Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole) unlock a higher level of performance, the Yankees have found success in finding and developing undervalued position players (like outfielder Mike Tauchman, Ford and others).
As Voit languished in the St. Louis Cardinals’ minor league system last year, Cashman traded for him because the Yankees’ analytics department noticed his hard-hit numbers. In Urshela, the Yankees saw a standout defender who struggled to hit in the majors but had a good ability to make contact. With the help of Class AAA hitting coach Phil Plantier last year, Urshela changed his swing to use his legs and the barrel of the bat more. The result this season: better, harder contact and a career high .314 batting average with 21 home runs.
Changes in decades-old hitting philosophies, spurred by baseball’s data revolution, have improved the quality of contact everywhere in a lineup. Earlier in his career, the 36-year-old Gardner said he was told to use his speed as a leadoff hitter and slap ground balls — a risky approach as teams increasingly positioned their infields based on batter tendencies. But as hitting instruction evolved, Gardner began using his legs more in his swing to drive the ball better and tried taking advantage of the entire field. Something similar happened with Cameron Maybin, 32, an in-season addition that helped steady the outfield through injuries.
The two not only hit the ball more in the air but harder over the past few seasons, and set career highs in home runs this year — Maybin with 11 and Gardner with 28. Exit Velo City, indeed.