Last September, I took no pleasure in writing about the stark differences in coaching between the San Francisco Giants, who got the most out of their talent, and the Yankees, who… hadn’t. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal had recently published a piece detailing the pre-2021 overhaul of the Giants’ coaching staff. By hiring twice as many coaches as is traditional and prioritizing advanced analytical thinking, communication skills, and enthusiasm over experience, the team seemingly came out of nowhere to win 107 games and the NL West.
By contrast, the Yankees took a half-measured approach to modern coaching. They made a similar overhaul to the Giants, but only with their pitching coaches. Matt Blake was 34 when they hired him for the 2020 season and had never pitched professionally. His knowledge and ability to communicate information to his pitchers in an actionable way fueled breakouts by Nestor Cortes, Clay Holmes, Lucas Luetge, Michael King, and others. Indisputably, pitching has been the Yankees’ greatest strength since he took the reins.
Despite Blake’s success, the rest of the coaching staff had fallen behind the times, as I wrote in that article from September.
San Francisco makes more contact when they swing, whiffs less, and watches fewer called strikes. These are not the only reasons why they’ve scored 84 more runs than the Yankees despite playing with no DH, but they clearly have a better approach at the plate. Some of this comes down to general pitch recognition; some relates to pitcher scouting reports. In both cases, it’s the coaching that failed to put the Yankees in the best position to make solid contact… This offseason, it’s time to clean house and start over with a coaching model similar to the Giants’.
Cleaning house is exactly what the Yankees did. The early returns are phenomenal.
The New Coaching Staff
Following the 2021 season, the Yankees retained Blake, manager Aaron Boone, bench coach Carlos Mendoza, bullpen coach Mike Harkey, and catching coach Tanner Swanson. Everyone else was dismissed, thereby overhauling the club’s hitting and baserunning instruction.
Replacing Marcus Thames was a team of three hitting coaches led by Dillon Lawson, a 36-year-old who climbed the coaching ranks based on his analytical and teaching acumen in lieu of professional playing experience. He was joined by assistant hitting coaches Casey Dykes and Hensley Meulens. While Meulens is a longtime MLB veteran, it’s impossible to ignore the similarities between Lawson and Blake. It’s clear that the pitching coach’s success made him the template for hiring decisions.
Another important change was replacing embattled third base coach Phil Nevin, a close friend of Boone’s, with former Mets manager Luis Rojas. He has been charged with improving not only the team’s baserunning, but keeping a lid on their opponents’ running game as well.
While the pitching staff remains the team’s greatest strength, the offense has certainly carried its weight. Through Saturday’s action, their 4.91 runs per game are second in the American League. They lead the league in OBP (.326), SLG (.426), and HR (48, tied with the Los Angeles Angels). This is a significant improvement over the 2021 squad whose 4.39 runs per game was tenth in the AL and well below the league average of 4.60.
There are several reasons for their run-scoring resurgence. Their player personnel isn’t exactly the same, especially after the big trade with Minnesota that sent Gio Urshela and Gary Sánchez away for Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa. Anthony Rizzo’s .233/.350/.526 slash line is a massive boost over their first base production from this time a year ago, which mainly consisted of Jay Bruce and an out-of-position DJ LeMahieu, who was probably less than 100% healthy. On that note, they’ve been remarkably lucky to avoid injuries. Tim Locastro is the only player they’ve placed on the Injured List since the start of the season.
Nevertheless, they’ve also improved their collective approach at the plate. Their called strike percentage has decreased from 17.4% in 2021 to 16.8% this season. Their zone contact rate, or how often they make contact on swings in the strike zone, has improved from 83.0% to 84.3%. They’re not merely just making contact either— their quality of contact has taken a massive step in the right direction. They lead MLB in barrel rate (12.6%), hard-hit rate (48.6%), and average exit velocity (91.9 mph). It’s still early, but these are all way above their 2021 marks.
By nature, baserunning isn’t as much of an impactful part of the game as hitting or pitching, but the club has still made noteworthy gains over last year. In 2021, they finished with -15.1 BsR, a FanGraphs metric that measures overall baserunning. This was 29th in MLB and by far the worst in the AL (second-worst was Seattle with -7.1). They made an agonizing 22 outs at home plate in the regular season, tied with the Royals for the most in MLB, plus one more during the Wild Card Game loss in Boston.
In 2022, their -0.2 BsR is roughly league-average. That’s nothing special in a vacuum, but it marks a substantial difference over last year. Through the first 33 games of the season, they are 21-28 (75%) on stolen base attempts. They finished 63-81 (78%) in 2021. It’s nearly the same success rate, but they’re attempting 0.85 steals per game as compared to 0.5 last season.
MLB is a copycat league. When one franchise paves a new path towards success, the others follow in its wake. The Giants reinvented the modern coaching staff. The Yankees were already on the right track with Blake but needed to get the rest of their staff caught up with the times.
Lawson, Rojas, and the rest of the new additions can’t take all of the credit for the Yankees’ early-season success, but they’re certainly a big part of it. Despite similar player personnel, this looks like a different team in the batter’s box and on the basepaths. For as much as their predecessors deserved my ire back in September, these Yankees coaches are worth all their kudos.