As first explained by Jon Roegele last January and revisited by Jeff Sullivan in September, the strike zone has been expanding in recent years. It is expanding downward, specifically. There are more called strikes at the knees and below nowadays than there were a few years ago for whatever reason. Pitchers have been taught to keep the ball down for decades, and now there is even more of an incentive to do so. It’s hard to do anything with pitches down in the zone.
As a result, some teams have started seeking out low-ball hitters to counter the expanding strike zone. Josh Donaldson, who went from the Athletics to the Blue Jays this offseason, is one of the best low-ball hitters in the game, putting up a .273 AVG and .180 ISO on pitches in the lower third of the zone and below the last two years. The MLB averages were .230 and .103, respectively. The best low-ball hitter in baseball the last three seasons has been (who else?) Mike Trout, with a .343 AVG and .229 ISO.
Last season, the Yankees as a team hit .229 with a .101 ISO on pitches in the lower third of the zone and below, the 17th and 15th best rates in baseball, respectively. The MLB averages in 2014 were a .232 AVG and .103 ISO. Keep in mind those are raw AVG and ISO numbers, unadjusted for ballpark or anything like that. The Yankees were a below-average hitting team on pitches down in the zone despite playing home games in hitter happy Yankee Stadium.
The Yankees have remade their lineup a bit this offseason, at least compared to the Opening Day lineup a year ago. They have a new projected starters at the three non-first base infield positions plus a new primary DH regardless of whether Alex Rodriguez or Garrett Jones gets the majority of the at-bats. Let’s look at how the current roster has performed on pitches down in the zone the last three seasons, with an enormous thanks to the indispensable Baseball Savant.
|C Brian McCann||.219||.148||.236||18.5%|
|1B Mark Teixeira||.193||.147||.225||23.4%|
|2B Stephen Drew||.179||.072||.276||33.7%|
|SS Didi Gregorius||.245||.115||.286||17.5%|
|3B Chase Headley||.225||.098||.318||28.5%|
I was curious to see Teixeira’s down in the zone stats before looking them up because, anecdotally, it seems like he’s a high-ball hitter based on what I’ve seen during his first six years in pinstripes. Sure enough, the data backs it up. Teixeira hit .193 with a .147 ISO on pitches down in the zone these last three years while hitting .268 with a .266 ISO on all other pitches. The MLB averages for pitches not down in the zone since 2012 are .273 AVG and .175 ISO, for reference.
Both Teixeira and McCann are power-before-average hitters, which is why they have a better than league average ISO but a below-average batting average on pitches in the bottom third of the zone and below. Headley has been below-average on low pitches but not by much, just a few points in both AVG and ISO. Remember, AVG and ISO are unadjusted and Headley spent most of the last three years in cavernous Petco Park. I expect these numbers to come up going forward. Drew … yikes. Let’s leave it at that.
Gregorius is interesting because he has actually been slightly above-average on hitting pitches low in the strike zone, though only slightly. On the other hand, he has hit .244 with a .134 ISO on pitches not down in the zone, below those .273 AVG and .175 ISO league averages. Seven of his 13 big league homers have come on pitches in the lower third of the zone and below — one of those seven is his first career homer (video), which came at Yankee Stadium off Phil Hughes in April 2013 — so it seems like Gregorius has some golf in his swing. That’s useful.
|LF Brett Gardner||.229||.106||.306||25.6%|
|CF Jacoby Ellsbury||.257||.108||.308||18.8%|
|RF Carlos Beltran||.230||.121||.279||22.1%|
Ellsbury is a high contact hitter who consistently gets the fat part of the bat on the ball, so it’s no surprise he’s fared well on pitches down in the zone. The power production is only league average, but that’s not really his game. Gardner has been so close to being perfectly average on low pitches these last three years that it’s kinda freaky. He’s off the MLB average by one point of AVG, one point of ISO, and three-tenths of a percentage point in strikeout rate.
Beltran has been above-average low-ball hitter by virtue of having an average AVG with better than average ISO and strikeout rates. That said, the Beltran we saw last year was not the same Beltran the Cardinals had from 2012-13. During his two years in St. Louis, Beltran hit .237 with a .133 ISO on low pitches. Last year it was a .211 AVG with a .092 ISO. Hopefully that is just a function of playing through an elbow injury for most of the summer rather than a decline in skills. If that is the case, healthy Beltran is a real weapon against pitches down in the zone.
|DH Alex Rodriguez||.263||.180||.321||24.8%|
|C John Ryan Murphy||.256||.070||.367||28.3%|
|IF Brendan Ryan||.160||.050||.231||30.0%|
|OF Chris Young||.158||.131||.210||31.0%|
|UTIL Garrett Jones||.244||.157||.290||22.2%|
First things first, let’s just ignore Murphy’s numbers. He has only 112 plate appearances in the big leagues and fewer than 50 of them (46, to be exact) have ended on pitches down in the zone, so it’s a very small sample. Everyone else’s stats are based on a few hundred plate appearances that ended on low pitches.
Anyway, look at A-Rod! He flat out mashed low pitches from 2012-14, which really means he mashed low pitches from 2012-13 because he didn’t play last year. On the other side of the coin, he put up a .267 AVG with a .142 ISO against non-low pitches the last three seasons, both below-average rates. We have no idea what Alex can do next year at age 39 with two surgically repaired hips after missing all of 2014. If he puts up anything close to the 113 wRC+ he had from 2012-13, it would be a major win, low-ball hitter or not.
Jones has been a real threat against pitches down in the strike zone. His AVG, ISO and strikeout rate have been better than average the last three seasons. By comfortable margins too. I guess that’s not surprising — take a few minutes to watch this highlight video and it’s obvious Jones can go down to get a pitch and lift it a long way. Young has some pop on low pitches but is generally well-below-average. Ryan isn’t much of a hitter, low pitches or otherwise.
The additions of Gregorius and Jones figure to help the Yankees against pitches down in the zone in an age when more low strikes are being called and even more pitches are at the knees or below. Headley should also help now that he’s in a much more favorable park, and A-Rod is a wildcard. Maybe he’ll help but probably not. The Yankees weren’t a very good low-ball hitting team in 2014 and their additions this winter appear likely to help improve the situation this coming season.