The Yankees’ Lineup Has Plenty of the Right Stuff. Would Another Lefty Help?

The Yankees’ Lineup Has Plenty of the Right Stuff. Would Another Lefty Help?

February 22, 2019

TAMPA — For all the power in the Yankees’ lineup, which smashed a major league-record 267 home runs last season, it lacks the balance that is often a trademark of standout teams.

That’s because nearly all of the Yankees’ power-hitting everyday players hit from the right side, from Aaron Judge to Giancarlo Stanton to Gary Sanchez to Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres.

That is particularly useful when squaring off against a left-handed pitcher. But when the Yankees face a right-hander this season, the only left-handed batters in the lineup might be outfielders Brett Gardner and Aaron Hicks, a switch-hitter; at least, that might be the case until the return this summer of the left-handed-hitting shortstop Didi Gregorius, who is still rehabilitating from Tommy John surgery.

To have such an overload of right-handed hitters is an intriguing departure for the Yankees, a franchise with a rich tradition of powerful left-handers, from Babe Ruth to Lou Gehrig to Yogi Berra to Roger Maris to the switch-hitting Mickey Mantle and, more recently, to Robinson Cano and to the switch-hitters Bernie Williams and Mark Teixeira.

They regularly took advantage of the short porch in right field of the old Yankee Stadium, or the new one. As such, loading up the Yankees’ lineup with powerful left-handed hitters has long seemed like a given — until now, anyway, which is just fine with General Manager Brian Cashman.

“The balance in the lineup is vitally important,” Cashman said. “But not at the expense, from my perspective, of the best player on the board — especially if those players possess the ability to go the other way with power.”

In other words, Cashman and the rest of his front office are confident that their collection of mostly right-handed batters, accentuated by the absence of Gregorius, will not be a weakness in 2019.

With a similar lineup last season, the Yankees posted an .800 on-base-plus-slugging-percentage against left-handed pitchers, trailing only the Houston Astros for the best mark in baseball. But there was little drop-off for the Yankees when they faced right-handed pitching — a .773 O.P.S. that was the fourth best in the major leagues.

“In a perfect world, you’d have a bunch of guys that hit .300 and hit for power and hit from both sides of the plate and you can balance them perfectly,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said. “But that doesn’t always exist. I’d rather have better players than acquiring someone because he hits from a certain side of the plate.”

A lineup of hitters on the same side of the plate could be a welcoming sight for opposing managers, who would face fewer matchup issues with their bullpen. But it helps the Yankees that some of their best right-handed batters clearly can handle both left-handed and right-handed pitching. Andujar, the runner-up for the American League Rookie of the Year Award last season, and Judge each posted an O.P.S. over .860 last season against right-handed pitchers.

“I’ve always faced righties growing up,” Judge said. “I didn’t see too many lefties coming up as a kid. So for me, I feel more comfortable facing right-handed pitchers. Lefties, it’s a little icing on the cake.”

One of Cashman’s mentors was Gene Michael, who was a general manager of the Yankees in the 1980s and then again in the 1990s. Michael prioritized left-handed power hitters to take advantage of dimensions in the old Yankee Stadium. The right-field wall was 314 feet from home plate.

Although the Yankees officially list the dimensions of the new Yankee Stadium, which opened in 2009, as being identical to the ones in the old stadium, some evidence suggests that the wall in right-center field in the new ballpark is less curved and a somewhat more-inviting target for a right-handed batter hitting the ball the opposite way.

Balls hit the opposite way, with power, are still likely to travel a shorter distance than balls pulled with power. So even shaving a few feet in right-center field helps all those right-handed Yankee hitters hitting to right field.

Or, as Cashman put it: “I used to be a big believer in those big left-handed air monsters because of right field. But in the new ballpark, right-center field isn’t as deep. It just plays completely different. So it’s O.K. to have right-handed pieces that can still go the other way to take advantage.’’

Of the Yankees’ 267 home runs last season, 117 were hit to right field. Of those, nearly half were hit by right-handed batters, according to FanGraphs — almost double the next team in that category, the Oakland Athletics.

Seventeen of Stanton’s 38 home runs last season were to right and right-center field. Judge has hit nearly as many home runs in his career to right and right-center as to left and left-center field.

In explaining the team’s current lack of left-handed hitters, Cashman also pointed to the explosion of defensive shifts on the right side of the infield over the last decade. He cited Brian McCann and Teixeira as left-handed power hitters who saw their batting averages drop significantly because of the shifts.

“When they got to the Yankees, and as the shifts became more prevalent, there’s less real estate in right field to play with,” he said. “So now these pull-heavy, left-handed hairy monsters are getting reduced because the shifts are so effective.”

Gregorius, of course, is a factor in the current imbalance. Hitting from the left side, he had 27 home runs and had a .829 O.P.S. last season. In his absence, Tulowitzki, who has a proven ability to hit the ball all over the field, is expected to be his main replacement.

One potential wild card in all this is Greg Bird, who has left-handed power but hit just .199 in 2018 and has dealt with significant injuries each of the past three seasons. In the battle to win the first baseman’s job out of spring training, Luke Voit has a leg up because of how he helped the Yankees down the stretch last season. And Voit, too, is right-handed.

Gardner said having more left-handed hitters in the lineup would give him a chance to see how a rival pitcher would attack him as a game progresses. But with the current litany of data and video on opponents, he said there was no excuse for a lack of preparation.

“It doesn’t matter where I’m at in the lineup or who is hitting behind me, it doesn’t change a whole lot about the way I go about it,” he said.

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