Now bunting for the New York Yankees, first baseman, number 25, Mark Teixeira.
Frustrated by his dwindling batting average against right handed pitchers, the slugging Yankees’ first baseman recently suggested he may start bunting more in order to thwart the shift that has stolen so many hits from him. For some Yankees’ fans who have grown frustrated by the site of Teixeira grounding out to shallow right, that epiphany will probably be looked upon as a godsend, but is it really in the best interest of the team?
I have to adapt. I’ve been frustrated the last few years, because those balls haven’t been falling in. Finally I’ve kind of given in, and I’m going to hopefully start using that side a little more.” – Mark Teixeira, quoted by MLB.com, January 31, 2012
Like it or not, Mark Teixeira has become much more one-dimensional from the left side of the plate. Playing 81 games with the Yankee Stadium short porch staring you in the face sometimes has that effect. However, Teixeira’s performance as a lefty pull hitter hasn’t really suffered. Although off career highs in 2008 and 2009, the Yankees’ first baseman still managed to hit 0.337 and slug 0.837 when pulling the ball against righties in 2011, allowing him to compile a wOBA of 0.493 in those situations. Again, those rates aren’t as lofty as a few years back, but they are still potent enough to make the Yankees question whether Teixeira should waver from his pull happy approach.
Even though the shift may be stealing a few singles from Teixeira when he pulls a ground ball, where it seems to really be beating him is to the opposite field. Despite having the entire left side of the field open when facing right handed pitchers, Teixeira has seen his productivity as an off-field hitter in those situations plummet. Since 2007, when Teixeira’s average and slugging were .333 and .689 as lefty going the other way, the first baseman has gradually declined into an abyss. Last year, Teixeira hit 0.086 and slugged 0.103 when using the opposite field as a left handed hitter, which is as close as you can get to being an automatic out. Also, even though his average on balls hit to center as a lefty rebounded in 2011, his slugging remains well off his career norms, suggesting he has become little more than a singles hitter when going up the middle as a southpaw.
It’s easy to understand why Teixeira has become more pull conscious from the left side. After all, he has had a lot of success launching fly balls into the seats at Yankee Stadium. The mystery, however, is his inability to be even marginally productive when going the other way as a lefty. Ironically, it is that phenomenon, not becoming pull happy, that has led to a decline in Teixeira’s overall offensive numbers. Could it be that Teixeira has responded to the shift by forcing his attempts to use the opposite side? Instead of waiting for the right pitch to drive into the left field gap, perhaps Teixeira is making his mind up before the pitch is even thrown? Or, maybe Teixeira’s focus on pulling the ball has caused him to neglect his opposite field swing mechanics? What ever the reason, it seems clear that before Teixeira tries to use the opposite field more often as a southpaw, he should first figure out why he has had little success doing it over the past two seasons.
Although Mark Teixeira has become very singular from the left side, his approach as a right handed hitter remains more varied. In 2011, Teixeira continued to mash as a pull hitter from the right side, but also chipped in with a 0.265 batting average and 0.559 slugging percentage when using the opposite field. In fact, Teixeira’s 0.349 wOBA as a righty going the other way ranked among the best rates of his career. What makes that level of success even more impressive is it represented a big rebound from 2010, when Teixeira’s opposite field performance as a right hander suffered even more than it did from the left side. Although last year’s right-handed struggles going the other way may have been an aberration (or maybe just the result of batted ball classification, considering his relative rates going up the middle), his improvement suggests that Teixeira may be capable of making a similar adjustment as a lefty swinger.
It’s easier said than done, but Mark Teixeira needs to adopt the approach he uses as a right handed hitter when batting from the left side. First and foremost, his objective should be to pull the ball because that’s when he has the most success. Then, if he is able to adjust to pitching patterns, he can once again start lining balls into the left field gap when batting from the left side. However, if Teixeira is unable to re-find his opposite field stroke as a left handed hitter, he would be better advised to pull everything. After all, there’s no point forfeiting the high reward of going for the downs when the alternative pay-off is so low.
When the situation calls for it, an occasional bunt against the shift wouldn’t be a bad idea, but what the Yankees really need is for Mark Teixeira to maximize his potential to do damage each and every at bat. If that means swinging from his heels as a left hander, so be it. With the right mix of patience, such an approach can yield a very intimidating offensive presence, not unlike the first baseman who preceded Teixeira in pinstripes. Considering his defense and overall batting skill from the right side, becoming Jason Giambi when batting as a lefty not only wouldn’t be a bad thing, it might actually lead to a renaissance in Teixeira’s career.