Friday, January 23, 2015

Can Yankees’ Mark Teixeira find his stroke in 2015?

The New York Yankees are banking on the middle of their lineup to produce a lot more than they did in 2014 and first baseman Mark Teixeira is a big part of it. The questions about Teixeira are not new; does he have it in him to be on the field enough to generate the type of offense the club needs? And can he find the stroke to get it done?

Recent history says no to both questions. The switch-hitting Teixeira has played in just 271 games over the last three seasons. He missed almost all of 2013 and played in 123 games in both 2012 and 2014. He turns 35 in April and he’s battled numerous ailments since his last healthy season in 2011.

It’s true that the Yankees have a better backup in Garrett Jones than they did in 2014 when the club tried several players in the role. But the truth of the matter is they want – and need – Teixeira in the lineup at least 140 times this season. To expect more is unrealistic and getting less is simply not helpful.

Without looking at his 2013 statistics, here is a straightforward sample of figures to show how much more poorly Teixeira performed in 2014 versus 2012.

2012 32 524 113 27 24 84 54 83 .251 .332 .475 .807 115
2014 34 508 95 14 22 62 58 109 .216 .313 .398 .711 101
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 1/23/2015.

Everything is worse across the board, minus the number of walks, with virtually the same number of trips to the plate. Was his problem the surgically repaired wrist? Potentially, but his home run power is seemingly still there.

Did it matter what side of the plate he was hitting from? Not really, as his splits are pretty close to his career norms. He had an OPS+ of 105 against right-handed pitchers and 97 versus southpaws. Those numbers are not too far off his career OPS+ marks of 109 versus RHP and 96 against LHP.

But, Teixeira’s isolated power (ISO) was a career-low .182, which was 0.42 off his 2012 mark (.224). His ISO was significantly higher against righties (.199) than lefties (.138) in 2014. Interestingly, it was the reverse in 2012 – .261/.199. While his ISO as a whole is down, another year removed from the healing process of the wrist surgery could help some.

Where else is Teixeira going wrong? The infield shift is certainly one of his problems. He has yet to figure out a way to completely beat it. Further, he has more or less refused to try to combat the shift because he felt doing so adversely affected his swing.

Teixeira's groundball/flyball ratio has elevated significantly, sitting at 1.11 in 2014. It was 1.04 in 2012, and was never higher than 0.83 from 2009 through 2011. Combine his stubbornness with a new-found propensity to hit groundballs, and the results become unflattering.

Besides the shift, Teixeira is striking out more. His strikeout rate in 2014 was 21.5 percent. That was the highest of his career, and 5.7 percent higher than 2012. His walk rate was exactly in line with his career mark of 11.4 percent.

It seems that Teixeira has a lot of work to do on his approach at the plate. It’s possible that working with new hitting coach Jeff Pentland and/or assistant hitting coach Alan Cockrell might benefit Teixeira. Maybe one of them sees something that former hitting coach Kevin Long didn’t, or better yet they can assist Teixeira in feeling comfortable modifying his swing when facing the shift – something opposing teams will continue to employ until he shows he's adjusted his approach.

So, if Teixeira is able to get 140 games under his belt this season, what can the Yankees expect, or hope for?

Steamer projections via FanGraphs have Teixeira playing in just 125 games. In 543 plate appearances, they have him pegged at .223/.314/.414, 104 wRC+ and a 1.4 fWAR. They’ve estimated 20 doubles, 23 homers and 69 RBIs with a .190 ISO. Extrapolated to 608 plate appearances (using their PA/GM ratio), those counting stats would increase to 22 doubles, 26 homers and 77 RBIs.

None of this is going to get Yankees fans overly excited, but it’s a hair better than what Teixeira produced in 2014. An optimist might suggest that if Teixeira’s wrist is much better he could bang out 25 doubles and 30 homers and get closer to 85/90 RBIs. However, it’s difficult to feel confident he will do so based on his past handling of the shift combined with his recent battles hitting groundballs and an increased strikeout rate. A change in approach is key for Teixeira.

If Teixeira cannot or will not make changes, then sadly, Steamer’s measure could be the best the Yankees receive from him and his $22.5 million salary in 2015. What's worse; Teixeira has one more year on the contract at the same price, with potentially more diminishing returns to come.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.

Mark Teixeira photo courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr.

Christopher Carelli is a freelance sports writer and sports media strategist. His baseball commentary has also been published on Yahoo Sports, the FanSided network, Sportsideo and linked multiple times on MLB Trade Rumors’ Baseball Blogs Weigh In. He is a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, the Baseball Bloggers Alliance and the BYB Hub.