(In addition to appearing at The Captain’s Blog, this post is also being syndicated at TheYankeeAnalysts.)
Over any 10-game stretch, even the most accomplished hitter can experience a dry spell. For the most part, such slumps pass by unnoticed, but when they occur at the beginning of the season, there is usually much more scrutiny.
For established players in their prime, the early panic is usually unwarranted. However, for aging veterans and younger players without a proven track record, each new season brings with it justifiable skepticism. This year, the Yankees have three hitters who fall into that category.
Derek Jeter’s 2010 was such a deviation from the norm, that it’s only natural to wonder if the great Yankees’ short stop is in the midst of a drastic decline. Unfortunately, the first 11 games of the season have done little to dispel that fear. In almost 50 plate appearances, Jeter has only one extra base hit, resulting in the 13th lowest slugging percentage among qualified batters in the American League. The biggest reason for his lack of power has been an inability to drive the ball in the air. To this point, a whopping 79% of Jeter’s at bats have resulted in a ground ball. What’s more, 25% of his fly balls haven’t let the infield. In other words, Jeter’s .256 BABIP doesn’t point to bad luck, but rather bad contact.
Amid all the bad omens, there are two positive signs that one can take away from Jeter’s early performance. The first is he has avoided swinging at, and making contact with, pitches outside of the zone. In 2010, Jeter recorded career highs in both categories, but this season, his rates have returned to more normal levels. As a result, Jeter’s walk rate has risen back over 10%, which is where it has been during his best seasons. Another silver lining is the Yankees have mostly faced right handed pitchers. Even in his best years, the Captain has greatly preferred facing lefties (he has a .445 wOBA in 10 plate appearances against lefties this season), so the lack of such opportunities has likely been a drag on his performance.
If you give Jeter an allowance for adjusting to his new batting stance (or reverting back to the old one), and then take into account the way the schedule has broken down, there’s still reason to hold out hope that the future Hall of Famer can at least return to being an above average offensive short stop.
Joining Jeter in his struggles atop the lineup has been Brett Gardner. Before the season, many pundits considered Gardner’s ascension to the leadoff spot to be a no-brainer, but over the first 10 games, the speedster has turned in the 8th lowest on-base percentage in the American League. An initial peak inside Gardner’s early season performance reveals one alarming trending: an increase in strikeouts alongside a decrease in walks. Fueling this trend seems to be opposing pitchers’ willingness to simply challenge Gardner, especially early in the count. To date, 67.4% of first pitches thrown to Gardner have been strikes, which compares to 56.2% last season. In total, 56.3% of all pitches seen by Gardner have been in the zone, compared to 48.3% last year. As a result, the Yankees’ left fielder has been swinging more…and missing.
Brett Gardner: 2010 vs. 2011
Legend: Z-swing is percentage of swings at pitches in the zone; Z-contact% is percentage of contact made at swings in the zone; Zone% is percentage of pitches thrown in the zone; F-Strike% is percentage of first pitch strikes; and SwStr% is percentage of strikes on swings.
What provided a glimmer of hope for Jeter, casts a further pall over Gardner’s early slump. Despite facing right handers in 93% of his first 46 plate appearances, Gardner has not been able to take advantage of what has been a favorable split. Ironically, he has almost had as many hits against southpaws (2) as righties (4), despite having 34 fewer chances. If Gardner has found it difficult to get going against a steady diet of righties, what will happen when the Yankees encounter more lefties? If his struggles continue, he might not even get the chance to play against them.
Another reason for concern about Gardner is his strong start in 2010 masked a very shaky second half. In fact, the last three months of that season featured the same alarmingly high strikeout rates evident so far this year. Based on a small sample, it seems as if pitchers have made an adjustment to Gardner’s patient approach. They are attacking him early and making him put the ball in play, something the speedster hasn’t been able to do. As a result, the onus now falls on Gardner to make his own adjustments. The ability to do so could determine his future in the major leagues.
Trailing right behind Gardner in on-base futility has been Jorge Posada, whose .231 rate is 10th worst in the American League. Posada’s numbers are a little bit deceiving, however, because although the new Yankees’ DH only has seven hits, five of them have left the ballpark (in fact, one of every three fly balls hit by Posada has carried over the wall). That dynamic has left Posada with an anemic BABIP of .091, a level so low that it has to be an aberration. However, there are some warning signs. Over his first 10 games, Posada’s walk rate has been cut in half from his career norm, while his line drive percentage stands at a paltry 7.4%. Although Posada has been making more contact on pitches outside of the zone, there isn’t much evidence to suggest that his struggles are systemic.
Making Your Hits Counts
Note: Players with at least 30 homeruns, but no more than 100 hits.
Entering the season, much was made of Mark Teixeira’s propensity to slump in April, but so far the first month hasn’t been too kind to most in the Yankees’ lineup. With players like Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher, it’s easy to dismiss a slow start, but with Jeter, Posada, and Gardner there is legitimate reason for doubt. Although the level of concern surrounding each player is different, all three will be worth monitoring as the month progresses.