When New York Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira hit the disabled list this March with a torn tendon sheath in his wrist, he was part of a steady stream of injuries that robbed the club’s early season roster of much of its top talent.
After a lengthy rehab, the injury—which similarly cost Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista 70 games last season—is mostly healed. Teixeira is expected to take the field for minor league rehab games beginning sometime this week. Barring further setbacks, he should re-join the big club in early June.
Yankee reinforcements have performed admirably in the absence of Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Kevin Youkilis, battling their way to first place in their division and the second best record in the American League.
Teixeira’s replacement, Lyle Overbay, has been a particularly pleasant surprise. With eight home runs and 28 RBI to his name, the former D-Back and Blue Jay has also shown a flair for the dramatic, racking up several clutch hits, including a game-tying ninth inning homer off Rays closer Fernando Rodney on Saturday.
Still, Teixeira’s return should be a major lift for a Yankee offense that has struggled overall despite a knack for hitting in key spots. The Yankees 4.33 runs per game rank 10th in the AL, an unfamiliar spot for a team usually known for bludgeoning opponents into submission.
Despite strong power numbers, Overbay’s OBP is just .292, and he’s been downright anemic versus left-handed pitchers, notching an OPS of .422 in 51 plate appearances. The switch-hitting Teixeira should help the lineup improve on its .231/.304/.359 overall line against lefties.
While Teixeira will be a welcome addition, the 33-year-old brings with him some questions that will need to be answered. Time will tell if the wrist will hold for the remainder of the season, but before that injury, Teixeira had seen a steady decline in the performance that enticed the Yankees to sign him to an 8-year, $180 million contract back in December of 2008.
In 2012, Teixeira put up career lows in OPS (.807), slugging (.475) and weighted on-base average (.345), while his .332 OBP and 2.7 fWAR were his worst since his rookie season. Those are by no means bad numbers, but the team has to wonder whether it will ever again see the hitter who finished second in the AL MVP race in 2009, his first year in New York.
Teixeira has always been a notoriously slow starter. His .766 career OPS in April falls well short of his .896 career mark, and his 33 April homers are far below his lowest total in any other month (58 in June). Teixeira’s spring woes may carry into summer this year, with his season beginning two months late.
Teixeira’s offensive decline since 2010 has been clear, but the reasons behind it are something that the Yankees, their first baseman and hitting coach Kevin Long have struggled to comprehend. Bat-speed naturally dwindles with age, turning pitches that would once have been driven into pop-ups and soft grounders, but a .141 drop in OPS from ages 29 to 32 is too stark to be explained by that alone.
Teixeira has always been an extreme pull-hitter from the left side, and teams employ a shift against him to account for that, placing four infielders on the right side. The shift may partially account for Teixeira’s ridiculously low BABIP’s (.268, .239 and .250 since 2010).
But plenty of hitters face the shift and still hit. Much has been made of Teixeira perhaps bunting or altering his swing to go the other way to defeat opposing managers’ defensive alignments, and that may, in fact, be the problem.
Since he joined the Yankees, Teixeira has developed a habit of swinging at more bad pitches. In 2009, Teixeira chased just 21.8 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. Over the ensuing three seasons, that mark ballooned to 26.5, 27.8 and 27.2, respectively.
Those rates are still superior to notoriously free swingers, but Teixeira was once one of the more selective batters in the game. Outside of some undiagnosed vision problem, there’s no physical reason for a hitter’s plate discipline to disappear.
One possible explanation is that the shift, and constant calls for him to hit to left field as a lefty, may be messing with his mind. Teixeira could be chasing outside pitches, in hopes of slapping them the other way, but his swing simply isn’t built for that. The result of putting such offerings in play would be weak dribblers to first and second, and that could account for the fact that Teixeira’s ground ball rate in 2012 (41.1 percent) exceeded his fly ball rate (39.5 percent) for just the third time in his career.
Upon returning to the Yankee lineup for the first time in 2013, it makes sense for Teixeira to go back to basics. Whatever adjustments he’s tried to make to his swing to beat the shift hasn't worked especially well, so it may be time to accept that a lower batting average, coupled with strong power numbers and high walk totals is nothing to be ashamed of.
Sitting 10th in the AL in RBI and ninth in slugging, with Jeter and Rodriguez still out and with Granderson back on the shelf after a quick eight-game return, the Yankees need Teixeira to serve as a power anchor in the middle of their order against left-handed and right-handed pitching alike.