Aaron Boone and the Yankees are committing to Clint Frazier in left field, even with Brett Gardner back. Which sounds bold, except that Frazier led Yankee outfielders in 2021 in Wins Above Replacement, OPS and RBIs.
So this isn’t exactly like, say, the Foo Fighters grabbing the first guy who walked by on the street to be their lead guitarist.
In fact, what the Yankees actually are committing to – especially with the return engagement of Gardner – is the status quo. Nineteen Yankees batted last year, and only the guys who ranked 17th and 18th in plate appearances are not back. That would be Erik Kratz and Jordy Mercer, the former who retired and the latter who took a minor league deal with the Nationals.
So the Yankees are getting the band back together when it comes to their positional group. That is mainly positive. Let’s call 2017-20 the Judge Era – a period defined by the Yankees becoming ever more right handed and power fanatical. In that time, the Yankees have finished second, second, first and fourth in runs per game, never dropping below 5.25 a game on average.
The move from Frazier to Gardner just doubles down in this area. Gardner is a lefty and, while he has upgraded his power in recent years, his offense has more nuance to it than just about anyone else in the Yankee lineup, save for DJ LeMahieu the past two years.
Switch-hitter Aaron Hicks would be the lone lefty bat in Boone’s standard lineup. So once Hicks is cleared the first time, the Yanks will run out eight straight righty hitters before Hicks bats again. Rinse, repeat. In theory this should make the Yankees susceptible to righty pitching while not fully capitalizing on the short right field porch at home.
But the Yankees had an .811 OPS vs. righty pitching last season (fifth in the majors) and .818 over the last two years (second in the majors). Their .892 OPS and 67 homers in home games last year both led the majors. Their .832 OPS since 2019 is fourth in the majors and their 210 homers are second.
Not all righty hitters are created equal. The Yankees have seven who have between an .833 OPS and an .897 OPS vs. righties the last two seasons combined: Gio Urshela, Luke Voit, Giancarlo Stanton, LeMahieu, Frazier, Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres; and Gary Sanchez is .795 even after a .620 in 2020. Plus the Yankee righty hitters are expert at generating opposite-field power. LeMahieu led the majors in 2020 with seven opposite-field homers, while Frazier and Voit were tied for second with five. Over the last two years, LeMahieu’s 19 opposite-field homers are three more than anyone else, and Judge’s 15 are tied for fourth.
And yet …
It feels right – literally right – on paper, but it never feels right that the franchise of Ruth and Gehrig and Berra and Mantle and Maris and Reggie has become so devoid of lefty diversity. This always seems more accentuated in the postseason, when the bad teams and pitching staffs are gone and opponents can feed righty relief monsters, in particular, at long corridors of the Yankee lineup.
Brian Cashman has conceded he would like to have more variety. But the Yankees general manager has maintained that he does not want to install an inferior player who bats lefty just to check it off the list.
In 2015 – as MLB.com pointed out in a January article – lefty batters consumed 68.6 percent of the Yankees plate appearances, the second most ever.
So what happened since? Mainly, Cashman looked around and his most attractive options kept being righty.
At the July 2016 trade deadline, Torres was viewed as the best prospect the Yankees could get for Aroldis Chapman, and Frazier for Andrew Miller. Judge, Sanchez and Greg Bird emerged near simultaneously from the Yankee system, but Bird could not stay healthy and/or productive enough to keep his lefty bat at first. Urshela and Voit were minor acquisitions who blossomed out of nowhere in The Bronx. The Yankees pivoted to Stanton after being snubbed by the lefty-swinging Shohei Ohtani. LeMahieu went from a luxury-item sign to a necessity.
Yet within these decisions are other choices, like sticking with Sanchez mainly due to the rarity of offensive catchers in a way they did not stick with Bird, especially once Voit emerged. The bat-first ethos has a bad defender at catcher, first with Voit and short with Torres. Cashman could have tried to trade out of any of them this offseason to gain diversity and likely better defense. He did not.
Instead, the Yanks are back to a positional group that had a major league-low 618 lefty plate appearances last year – less than half as many as the MLB-leading Mets (1,263). Most of the Yankee backups are lefties, such as Gardner, Mike Tauchman, Greg Allen, Tyler Wade, Mike Ford and non-roster invitees such as Jay Bruce or Derek Dietrich, so injuries likely will lead to more lefty at-bats.
But as this season approaches, the Yanks again are banking that they have devised the right way to a championship.