Despite having the second highest payroll and a roster packed with a dozen All-Stars, the Yankees can’t hit. You know that if you have seen New York stumble these past two months while Aaron Judge is on the injured list. This is the feeblest Yankees offense (4.35 runs per game) since the 1991 team lost 91 games. It has the franchise’s fourth lowest batting average (.230), its worst since the mound was lowered in 1969.
What you might not know is why they can’t hit. They are getting shut down with a barrage of breaking pitches.
The decline of fastballs and the increase in spin is a familiar trend in the analytics era. The Yankees are getting exposed by that trend this year. The Yankees are the worst team in baseball slugging against spin (.328), well below the next worst teams against spin, the Cubs (.337) and Pirates (.338). Their batting average against breaking pitches is .194. Only Seattle is worse (.192).
No wonder New York is seeing more spin (32.1%) than any time in franchise history, including a big jump from the previous high of last season (29.8%). Only six teams see more of it. Again, more spin around the game has been an annual event since 2015, but as you can see with the chart below, the increase the Yankees are seeing this year is well above industry standard:
In just the past 10 seasons, the percentage of breaking pitches seen by Yankees hitters has increased from 21.1% to 32.1%. Before the season I wrote about how in this age of more spin and more velocity the key to modern hitting is “swing decisions.” Good hitting is about timing elite velocity (the Yankees are 22nd against fastballs 95 mph and faster) and—because most breaking pitches wind up out of the zone—not chasing spin and hammering the breaking pitches that do hang.
The Yankees are struggling in this environment, especially lately. The book on how to throttle them was obvious on their six-game trip to start the second half. The Rockies and Angels threw them 40% breaking pitches! The major league average is 31.2%. The Yankees went 1-5 on the trip while hitting .198 against spin, 22 points below major league average.
The word is out. As the season goes on, teams are featuring more spin against New York. And the more spin they throw, the more the Yankees struggle:
The Yankees have been so bad against spin you have to wonder if the same group can produce better results over the season’s final 65 games. Every regular except Jose Trevino (.241) is hitting below MLB average against spin: Anthony Volpe (.147), Josh Donaldson (.147), Giancarlo Stanton (.170), Anthony Rizzo (.174), Harrison Bader (.203), D.J. LeMahieu (.204), Judge (.206) and Gleyber Torres (.215).
The Yankees hit much better against spin last year (.224 average; .401 slug). But their three best hitters against spin last season are not in the lineup now: Matt Carpenter, Andrew Benintendi and Judge, who has been out since June 3 but had regressed against spin before his toe injury.
With Carpenter and Benintendi gone and Rizzo experiencing a power outage, the Yankees have suffered from a major drop in production from lefthanded hitting. Better lineup balance can help neutralize spin. Acquisitions on the margins, such as Willie Calhoun, Franchy Cordero, Jake Bauers and Billy McKinney, have not been enough.
The strongest trends in the game are leaving the Yankees behind: more spin on the mound and more youthfulness, athleticism and speed from positional players to leverage the new rules. New York has the fourth oldest group of positional players. The Yankees rank in the bottom third of major league teams in taking the extra base, stolen bases, stolen base percentage, scoring from second on a single, going first to third on a single and hitting with runners in scoring position.
Now you understand why the Yankees have their worst offense since Horace Clarke was playing second base. Their roster looks too old, too righthanded and, mostly, too vulnerable to spin. Friday, they open a series against the Royals, who are 28-70 but throw the second most breaking pitches in baseball (38.8%).
Getting Judge back soon will be big, though any compromise to the back foot of a power hitter bears watching. Even with Judge, the Yankees need to add a run-producing lefthanded hitter. Cody Bellinger of the Cubs would be a good fit, given his power, athleticism, speed and ability to hit breaking pitches this year (.254).
The Yankees have a long and somewhat mixed history of adding lefthanded bats (including switch-hitters) at the deadline, an homage to the philosophy of the late Gene Michael that you need lefthanded hitting to win at Yankee Stadium. In the past 20 years they have added Bobby Abreu (2006), Wilson Betemit (2007), Lance Berkman (2010), Ichiro Suzuki (2012), Chase Headley and Stephen Drew (2014), Dustin Ackley (2015), Joey Gallo (2021) and Benintendi (2022).
The Yankees can’t let this trade deadline pass without addressing their offense, lest their season continue to spin toward irrelevance.