Where Have All the Yankees Home Runs Gone?
Something Seems Different This Year
The 2021 New York Yankees do not look like their typical home run happy selves. As of June 27th, the Bronx Bombers are currently tied for eighth in the league with 100 home runs. Their current 162 game pace is 210 home runs, which would equal their lowest total since 2016. Now I know that eighth in the league is not that awful, but something just seems different this year which inspired me to dig into the data.
First off, the 2021 Yankees lineup has been without Luke Voit, the 2020 home run king, for most of the season. Voit single-handedly accounted for over 20 percent of the team’s home runs last year. This void in the lineup has been attempted to be filled with a patchwork of Jay Bruce, Mike Ford, and Rougned Odor. This trio has accounted for only 12 home runs in 77 games. The 11 home run difference between Voit and the other guys would put the Yankees right back at the top of the league leaders, so maybe this wasn’t so hard to figure out after all?
Still, even with the easy and convenient math, I wasn’t convinced it told the whole story as to what was going on with the struggling Yankees offense. The three sluggers in the middle of the lineup have delivered so far. Aaron Judge has 17 home runs in 73 games (a 150 game pace of 35 home runs), Giancarlo Stanton has 13 home runs in 57 games (a 150 game pace of 34 home runs), and Gary Sánchez (yes Gary Sánchez) has 13 home runs in 59 games (a 150 game pace of 33 home runs). Outside of these three, no other Yankee has double-digit dingers. In the 2020 regular season, which is a similar sample size, five Yankees hit double-digit home runs and a sixth came close with nine. In addition to Voit, Judge, Stanton, and Sánchez, DJ LeMahieu added 10, and Clint Frazier added nine. So far in 2021, LeMahieu has seven, and Frazier only has five. Both Frazier and LeMahieu are struggling significantly compared to previous seasons across the board offensively, but there seems to be a pronounced lack of power output.
The Statcast Home Run Tracker measures how likely each home run a player hits is to be out in all 30 major league stadiums. This evaluating does not account for environmental variables such as elevation, weather, and wind so it’s simply based on the distance the ball travels. Statcast also offers the expected stat, xHR, which is the number of ballparks gone divided by 30 for each home run event. My simple interpretation of xHR gives insight as to how many home runs a player hits are “wall-scrapers” that were lucky to get out and how many were legit deep balls.
Looking at the 2021 Yankees, the HR and xHR numbers are mostly in line with one another pointing to the fact that the Yankees are hitting the appropriate number of home runs.
Despite these numbers also conveniently matching, it still feels like something is missing and power is lacking.
So I took a look back to last year and this trend looked significantly different in the shortened season. In 2020 six Yankees, including both LeMahieu and Frazier, hit more actual home runs than their xHR stat number. LeMahieu hit 10 home runs but was only expected to hit 6.8 and Frazier hit 9 home runs when he was only expected to hit 7.5. 2020 was admittedly an odd year, so maybe the short season was too small a sample size to allow these numbers to normalize closer to results like those from this year and these are the outliers in the data.
Luckily xHR is also available from 2019 giving us a full season of numbers to examine as well. Only one Yankees player hit fewer home runs during this season than was expected, with several players significantly exceeding their xHR number. Clint Frazier hit 12 home runs compared to his 8.8 xHR and DJ Le Mahieu hit 29 home runs with an xHR of only 19.9. Now it’s a well-known fact that 2019 was the “Year of the Rabbit Ball” during which offense was boosted all across the league. There was no significant change in the ball in 2020, so I think it’s easy to see how this offensive environment contributed to players such as Frazier and LeMahieu overperforming their expected home run totals. Under this assumption, what would happen if the characteristics of the ball were to change?
What’s This I Hear About A New Ball?
In February of 2021, MLB sent a memo to all teams stating that a new baseball will be used in the upcoming season. Following the 2019 season in which a record 6,776 home runs were hit, the league formed a committee to study the current baseball’s construction and look for ways to reduce offensive output in future seasons. Their findings claimed that inconsistencies in the hand-sewn baseballs resulted in lower seam heights reducing drag on the ball as it travels through the air. Additionally, the coefficients of restitution (COR) or bounciness of the baseballs were found to be consistently on the high end of the acceptable range. Based on these findings, MLB decided to make “slight” changes to the baseball including loosening the first layer of its wool windings and reducing its weight by 2.8 grams. The overall size of the baseball was unchanged from these modifications. The overall effects of these changes were predicted to reduce the distance traveled by a few feet on balls hit over 375 feet. The league claimed that no other effects would come as a result of these changes to the baseball, which I will leave up to the opinion of our readers.
After three months of the new baseball, offensive numbers are down across the league compared to recent seasons. As of June 26th, 2,637 home runs have been hit in 2,256 games. This puts the league on pace for 5681 total home runs in 2021. That’s over a 16 percent decrease from the 2019 season. I acknowledge that offense, specifically home runs, does not peak until later in the summer months. So the ultimate decrease may not be quite this large, but it seems pretty safe to say that home runs will be down significantly compared to 2019.
According to a study in Forbes, the new ball has successfully stymied offenses in 2021 with overall numbers down compared to the previous three years. The league-wide batting average on batted balls is down ten points and the slugging percentage is down thirty points. An interesting stat comparing fly balls in 2021 and 2019 shows the batting averages are the same but the slugging percentage is down almost thirty points. Additionally, this report found that fewer balls hit with similar trajectories and exit velocities are traveling over the fence in 2021. So in essence, the changes made to the baseball appear to have successfully reduced how far batted balls are traveling this season.
Where Do They Go From Here?
Losing a few feet of travel on batted balls is going to affect players differently in their overall home run total outcomes. Pure sluggers such as Judge, Stanton, and Sánchez will feel this difference minimally. It’s players who hit more “wall-scrapers” than monstrous home runs that will ultimately see a dip to their overall stat lines. I believe that these types of players typically exceed their xHR numbers while still hitting a majority of their home runs on the lesser side of the distance spectrum.
So far in 2021, DJ LeMahieu has hit six home runs despite an xHR number of 4.5. Of his six home runs, Statcast lists five as “Doubters” meaning that they would only be gone in seven MLB stadiums or fewer. Clint Frazier has hit five home runs closely matching his xHR number of 5.3, but similarly, all five are considered “Doubters.” LeMahieu and Frazier have typically outperformed their xHR numbers in past seasons so this is a new trend for both players. Additionally, a smaller percentage of their total home run numbers were categorized as “Doubters” in previous years. I feel this indicates that with the new baseball in play, batted balls for LeMahieu and Frazier just aren’t traveling as far as they used to. As a result, both are hitting fewer home runs. It’s safe to assume that the new ball effect is impacting all players to some extent, but it appears to have hit these two the most on the Yankees. This tend can be easily seen in the table below which summarizes these stats from the past three seasons.
I believe that this latest trend needs to be considered for the dynasty outlook of both LeMahieu and Frazier. If this is the “new normal” then we need to adjust moving forward. Many of the best predictive tools are already compensating for the new offensive environment, and our rankings should follow suit.
Frazier’s major league career has been very up and down since his major league debut. It is likely near its all-time low as he recently lost his starting left fielder job to Miguel Andujar. He is having his worst season at the major league level with a current wRC+ of 83, the lowest it’s been since his rookie year. His batting average is an abysmal .186 and his BABIP is .075 points lower than it has been in the last two seasons. A few bright spots lie with a solid max exit velocity (81st percentile) and maintaining his career double-digit barrel percentage. Frazier’s average exit velocity is bad though (13th percentile), so it seems when he doesn’t barrel the ball it results in a lot of weak contact. His walk and chase rates continue to improve sitting near the top of the league helping significantly in OBP formats, but he still strikes out near a 30 percent rate.
Frazier needs to make more contact overall plus find a way to improve his quality of contact. He has elite bat speed and a great understanding of the strike zone, so seeing this improvement is certainly not out of the question. Although hopes of 25-plus home run power may be slim considering the new offensive environment, he still profiles to be a solid contributor. To me, it seems like he needs to stop constantly tinkering with his batting stance and regain the confidence and swagger he used to show in the past. Frazier is only 26 and the prospect pedigree is still there, but he’s going to have to show a breakthrough soon.
As for LeMahieu, most of his batted ball data still looks strong in 2021 despite some uncharacteristically low early stat lines. He has been heating up at the plate lately piling up the multi-hit games that we are accustomed to seeing. LeMahieu also continues to show excellent plate discipline and has maintained a strikeout rate of around 15 percent. So overall he still looks like the elite hitter we have known over the past few years.
With that being said, the 25-plus home runs that have been present the past two seasons probably should not be something to bet on going forward. Since 2019, LeMahieu is second in the league in opposite field home runs. It seems highly likely that balls put in play towards the opposite field would be affected even more by the characteristics of the new baseball and take away a number of these home runs. Moving forward I would still expect a top-tier batting average with strong on-base skills, but look for his home run totals to return to the 10 to 15 range.
Post Credit Teaser – The Curious Case of Gleyber Torres
I’m sure some of you are wondering where the Gleyber Torres discussion is in this piece. He has certainly shown the most significant loss of power, but his stretches back to 2020 as well as this season with the new ball. Torres has hit a total of six home runs combined between the 2020 and 2021 seasons after hitting 38 in 2019. I believe there is a lot more going on with him than just adjusting to the new offensive environment of the league. Look for a deep dive into Torres specifically in a future piece!