The Yankees, by and large, are known for not exactly being one to sprint out of the gate, having gotten off to mediocre-to-slow starts in three of the last four years. 1-4 in 2017, 6-7 in 2018, 5-8 in 2019. All three of those years, the slow start would eventually go on to mean nothing in the grand scheme of things as the Yankees won 91, 100, and 103 games respectively.
At the time of writing this article, they are 5-6. There is little reason to assume that the middling level of play they have exhibited so far is going to continue—even though the team is downright frustrating to watch right now—but there is an interesting dimension to the offense this year that may be a result of something outside of the team’s control: the new baseballs.
Just before the start of Spring Training, MLB announced that they would be making changes to the ball for 2021; loosening the tension on the first of three wool windings within the ball with the intended effect of decreasing the baseball’s coefficient of restitution (basically, how bouncy the ball is). Independent lab testing had reported that the balls would normally lose a foot or two on balls hit around or over the 375 ft mark.
The intention of that move, according to MLB, was to attempt to induce more action into everyday games by increasing the average number of balls in play, since teams that had previously been homer-happy would exhibit less success with the long ball, and be forced to adapt.
Granted, we’ve had a very small sample size to examine the actual vs intended effects of this change, but the results across the league haven’t been too encouraging so far. Balls are flying out to Saturn significantly less, for sure, but league-wide strikeout percentages are also up 1.3%, and walk percentages are up 0.1%. Predictably, home run rates are down, but only by 0.3%, and with the upticks in the other two metrics, that doesn’t necessarily mean baseball, at least so far in this extremely small sample size, has moved in the intended direction, i.e. away from the three true outcomes. If these trends continue, there’s no guarantee we’ll see an actual increase in ‘action’ during games. What might happen is that we just see comparable fly-ball rates from years past, except this time they’re staying in the yard. A ball with increased drag would also benefit movement pitchers, compounding the reduction in the offense.
When I first heard of the change, I thought this would be somewhat of an underrated boon to the Yankees. In the last full season of baseball, everyone hit homers with an ease comparable to that of swatting a fly, which, in a roundabout way, sunk the value of pure, through-and-through power hitters, which to the surprise of nobody, the Yankees are stacked with. You'd figure that although the Yankees' power numbers would be affected by deadened baseballs, as would everyone else’s, the power hitters on this team would see lower dips in their power numbers as compared to hitters around the league who might’ve needed the juiced balls to send them out with regularity.
How well has that hypothesis checked out so far in 2021? Let’s compare the rates for walks, strikeouts, and home runs, which we can then use to formulate a general idea of how frequently an at-bat ends in one of the three true outcomes. Once again, remain wary of the small sample size.
2019-20 BB%: 9.7
2021 BB%: 10.8
2019-20 K%: 22.7
2021 K%: 23.5
2019-20 HR% 4.7
2021 HR%: 2.6
That seems to correlate almost perfectly with the general trends mentioned earlier, although the drop in HR rate is a little more drastic than you would expect. Still, that could also be attributed to April weather slowing down fly balls and some lackluster starts to the season by certain hitters.
In the grand scheme of things, this means for the Yankees what it means for all of baseball; exit velocity and launch angle—the two components to what Statcast defines as a barrel, are crucial to maintaining a semblance of normalcy relative to the offenses of past years.
Seeing as the changes to the baseball are shown to reduce drag, this might mean that the new, lighter baseballs get hit harder, but don't fly as well through the air.
This is something that the Yankees are primed to take advantage of, ranking in the upper percentiles for exit velocity with freakish consistency, thanks in very large part to their own King Kong and Godzilla, none other than Judge and Stanton.
It's interesting to note, in fact, that exit velocity is up by about 1.5% this season in the 90th percentile of hitters and above. Exit velo up and homers down? That's new.
We’ll see how the Yankees—and all of baseball—adapt to the changes in this year’s ball as the year goes on. One thing’s for certain: those who crack the code first will be boosted significantly in their quest to hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy.