Yankees trios’ fixation on exit velocity alarms Casey

Yankees veterans Giancarlo Stanton, DJ LeMahieu, and Anthony Rizzo.
John Allen
Thursday September 7, 2023

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Yankees hitting coach Sean Casey has added a new dimension to the ongoing controversy about the New York Yankees’ overbearing focus on analytics. While talking about the slumping veterans, the new hitting coach took the example of DJ LeMahieu to point out how he missed his natural hitting ability and slowed down after being told to focus on the exit velocity.

The month of October serves as an audition for the Yankees, and it’s not limited to just the young talents who have injected skill and enthusiasm into the squad. DJ LeMahieu, Anthony Rizzo, and Giancarlo Stanton are aware that they have secured spots on the team for the upcoming year, unlike prospects such as Jasson Dominguez, Oswald Peraza, and Everson Pereira. However, the Yankees’ success in 2024 will depend, at the very least, on the contributions of these veteran players, particularly considering the $57 million they will account for in the luxury tax payroll next season.

Yankees need veterans to return to form

There are multiple reasons why the Yankees need a baseball miracle this September to reach the playoffs. Even after a 4-3 victory over the Tigers on Wednesday night marked their eighth win in nine games, they still trailed by 6 ½ games in the wild card race with 23 games remaining. One significant factor contributing to the Yankees’ situation is the underperformance of LeMahieu, Rizzo, and Stanton during the eight weeks that Aaron Judge was sidelined with a toe injury.

Rizzo, as it was recently revealed, had a valid excuse. He suffered a concussion when his head collided with Fernando Tatis Jr.’s leg on May 28. Manager Aaron Boone announced this week that Rizzo, who hasn’t played since August 1, will be sidelined for the rest of the season. Therefore, it won’t be until the next spring that we can assess his condition and performance.

Giancarlo Stanton is at Yankee Stadium on April 15, 2023, against the Twins.

However, LeMahieu and Stanton continued to play. LeMahieu has suddenly regained his top form, and Stanton is hitting home runs at a rate that matches his career average. Yet, what does this mean? Judge’s return has provided some relief. Dominguez, in particular, is gaining attention, recording three hits, including his first home run at Yankee Stadium, as the Yankees secured their fifth consecutive win. However, if the Yankees intend to make a real push and be competitive next year, they will require more consistent performances from Rizzo and Stanton, who will be entering their age-34 seasons in 2024, and from LeMahieu, who will be entering his age-35 season. This comes at a time when rule changes emphasize the importance of youth and athleticism.

In the most optimistic scenario, Rizzo will return in 2024 and perform as he did prior to his injury in 2023, establishing himself as one of the most productive first basemen in the majors. LeMahieu appears to have found his form while working with the new hitting coach, Sean Casey, after not seeing eye to eye with his previous coach, Dillon Lawson. Perhaps he will maintain his strong performance from the second half of 2024. Stanton may also find a way to balance his power with a higher batting average.

In the less favorable scenario, concerns may arise early in the next season regarding whether Hal Steinbrenner will be willing to consider contract adjustments (similar to the situation with Aaron Hicks) by potentially parting ways with any of these players. Rizzo’s contract will expire after 2024, LeMahieu’s after 2026, and Stanton’s after 2027. Once again, the Yankees are financially committed to these players, so it will be challenging for the team to maintain a high level of competitiveness if they do not perform consistently.

LeMahieu and Rizzo hold specific values because, when they are in top form, they can effectively handle strong pitching. Additionally, Rizzo provides valuable left-handed batting diversity, which is beneficial for the team.

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The new hitting coach is blunt on LeMahieu’s slump

Casey has put forth the idea that LeMahieu had significantly disrupted his swing after his foot injury last season, leading to a decline in performance during the second half, and it took him about half a year to regain his sense of normalcy in his swing. In the first half, LeMahieu had a batting average of .220 and an OPS of .643. However, in the second half, those numbers have improved to .288 and .885, and he has rediscovered his ability to hit effectively to the opposite field.

When LeMahieu is at his best, he serves as a catalyst for the Yankees. This is because he can handle top-notch pitchers, remains composed under pressure, and excels at hitting in the lineup ahead of Judge. He has also been drawing walks at an impressive rate in the second half, with his 24th walk in 171 plate appearances, compared to only 24 walks in 305 plate appearances during the first half. Naturally, no opposing team wants to issue a walk to LeMahieu when Judge is waiting to bat next.

Casey noted that for a period of time, it seemed like the game was moving at a fast pace for him as he attempted to refine his swing. However, Casey observed that he had now returned to a more deliberate approach, using the entire field, and when he did that, he became a terrific hitter.

The Stanton assessment

On the other hand, Stanton has delivered 13 home runs in the second half, ranking 12th in the majors in this category. Going into Wednesday’s game, he had been hitting home runs in 6.3 percent of his plate appearances, which matches his career rate for a player who reached the 400-homer milestone on Tuesday night. However, his batting average is currently only .203.

Casey has suggested that Stanton has struggled to maintain consistency with his swing, but he firmly believes that Stanton still possesses the ability to hit in the .270 to .280 range.

Anthony Rizzo strikes out in the fourth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium, Monday, July 3, 2023, in Bronx, NY. (Corey Sipkin for the NY POST Photo/Corey Sipkin) New York Yankees vs. Baltimore Orioles
NY POST Photo/Corey Sipkin

Casey mentioned that he was still contributing to their victories, especially considering it was September, which made it challenging to make significant adjustments. Casey pointed out that he hit the ball exceptionally hard, and he believed that such a level of ability couldn’t be achieved without having some skill still intact.

Stanton unleashed a powerful hit at 119.5 mph in the first inning on Wednesday, which unfortunately resulted in Tigers starter Matt Manning sustaining a broken foot.

However, the question remains: at what cost does this impressive power come? Stanton’s batting average has dipped to .208 over the last two seasons, and his strikeout rate has been on the rise. In the first half, Stanton’s strikeout rate was slightly below his career average (25.2 percent), but in the second half, it surged to 30.2 percent. While Stanton’s natural power is undeniable, it often aligns with the approach of many Yankees hitters who prioritize exit velocity at the expense of other facets of their game.

The Yankees‘ best-case scenario sees LeMahieu, Rizzo, and Stanton batting 1-3-4 around Judge in 2024 as productive contributors. Conversely, the worst-case scenario portrays them as the top three issues on the roster.

What do you think? Leave your comment below.

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