Jacoby Ellsbury's proven postseason success may help Joe Girardi's 2014 championship quest.
Many have pegged the New York Yankees' prolific activity this offseason as a reaction to their poor 2013 showing. This past season saw an impotent Yankees offense and a championship for the rival Boston Red Sox—both motivating factors for the team's acquisition of Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Beltran.
But the transactions also reflect an adjustment to the several seasons that preceded 2013, in which the Yankees mashed their way into the postseason only to flame out at the plate in October. It seems that Yankees management is intent on not only making the 2014 playoffs, but also on bringing a new offensive formula with them.
Let's examine the 2011 and 2012 seasons. In both seasons the Yankees won at least 95 games on the way to the top seed and home-field advantage in the American League. They led the entire MLB in home runs in both seasons, hitting 222 in 2011 and then a whopping 245 in 2012.
Their powerful offenses failed them in the playoffs both seasons, though. After averaging 1.37 homers per contest in 2011, they managed only four in a five-game ALDS loss to the Tigers. They proved to be at the mercy of their streaky offense, scoring 19 runs in their two wins in the series but only six runs in their three losses.
Little changed in the 2012 postseason. After squeaking by the Orioles in five games despite scoring only nine runs in the final four games of the series, they fell flat in the ALCS against the Tigers, plating a paltry six runs in a four-game sweep by Detroit.
They managed only seven home runs—three by Raul Ibanez—and batted .188 in their cumulative nine playoff games in 2012.
Moreover, their strikeout totals showed an inability to simply put the ball in play. After striking out a little more than seven times per game in the 2011 and 2012 regular seasons, the team K'd 123 times in their 14 postseason games. Images of Yankee hitters flailing at off-speed pitches or watching fastballs zoom by, such as in the video below, came to symbolize their Octobers.
In the wake of such miserable outputs, all general manager Brian Cashman could offer was "I don't know what happened to a lot of our guys," via the New York Times.
Part of these struggles are pandemic in the postseason. Teams are facing better pitchers in colder weather under increased pressure. Subdued offensive performances are therefore expected to some degree.
But the Yankees' problems were especially conspicuous, given their high profile, their regular season success and their championship expectations.
Plus, several superstars provided a face to the Yankees problems with their ugly stat lines. In the two postseasons, Curtis Granderson hit .160 with 23 strikeouts, Alex Rodriguez hit .116 with 18 whiffs and Robinson Cano hit .161.
Let's fast-forward to the current offseason. The Yankees' moves have shown a recognition of their offensive failings in recent postseasons and an effort to address them. They appear more interested in proven success in the playoffs and don't seem as impressed by raw power hitters.
Of course, the signings of McCann, Ellsbury and Beltran certainly don't represent the Yankees shying away from the home run ball. Beltran has clocked 56 round-trippers in the past two seasons while playing his home games in Busch Stadium, the seventh-hardest place to hit home runs according to ESPN.
McCann has arguably the best power from the catcher position and led all backstops with just 17.8 at-bats per home run last season. As the tweet below shows, he'll also benefit from the short porch in his new home ballpark.
Ellsbury, finally, only hit nine dingers last season, but he did explode for 32 in 2011. With the advantageous dimensions of Yankee Stadium, it would not be surprising to see Ellsbury crack the 20-homer barrier again in 2014.
But more important are the postseason resumes that these players bring to the table. Beltran has cemented himself as perhaps the best postseason hitter of his generation, boasting a .333/.445/.683 slash line in 51 career playoff games. He alone can have a huge impact on a team's postseason fate: e scored or drove in 19 of the Cardinals' 56 runs as St. Louis advanced to the World Series.
Ellsbury too has proven himself a capable performer in the postseason. He has a .301/.361/.414 slash line in 38 career playoff games, while stealing 11 bases. He could combine with either Brett Gardner or Derek Jeter to create a formidable duo of table setters atop the Yankees lineup—one of the keys to a championship team according to Bleacher Report's own Zachary D. Rymer.
"There’s so many ways that he can beat you, whether it’s with his power or his speed," commented manager Joe Girardi at Ellsbury's introductory press conference, according to Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News. Such versatility offsets other Yankees' one-dimensional offensive games.
Both players avoid striking out too often as well. Ellsbury strikes out once every 7.8 plate appearances in the regular season and gets slightly worse in the playoffs, striking out once every 6.2 plate appearances.
Beltran somehow gets even tougher to K in the postseason, where his strikeout rate of once per 9.1 plate appearances is significantly better than his respectable regular season rate of once every 6.3 plate appearances.
McCann, then, is an outlier compared to Ellsbury and Beltran. He's only played in a dozen postseason games and went hitless in his 13 NLDS at-bats against the Dodgers this year.
Then again, it's hard to imagine McCann won't be an improvement in several senses. Russell Martin, despite his 39 regular-season home runs, hit .167 with one RBI in his 14 games as a catcher for the Yankees in 2011-12.
And in 2013, Yankees catchers hit .213 with eight home runs, a total that McCann could conceivably match in a single month wearing pinstripes. So if McCann can continue to play above-average defense and stroke a couple of extra-base hits in the playoffs, he'll be an upgrade behind the dish.
The moves that the Yankees haven't made have also indicated their avoidance of the long ball in favor of skill sets better built for October hardware.
They declined a trade for Brandon Phillips, who has limited postseason experience and, despite good power for a second baseman, only finished with a .310 OBP last season. They also have avoided Dan Uggla, who can do little else besides crack the occasional round-tripper.
And although they were not able to acquire him, the Yankees' interest in Omar Infante aligns with their newfound preferences. Infante has only slugged 37 home runs in the past four seasons, but he's hit a respectable .258 in the past two postseasons with the Tigers and had a .318/.345/.450 slash line in 2013.
Finally, the Yankees didn't seem particularly intent on bringing back Curtis Granderson, who eventually signed a four-year deal with the crosstown Mets. Granderson hit a league-high 84 home runs between 2011 and 2012. But his all-or-nothing style of offense sputtered in the playoffs.
It should be noted that the team's biggest headline—losing Robinson Cano to the Mariners—doesn't really fit within this discussion. They would have obviously loved to retain Cano, but his long-term demands eventually turned away the Yankees, not his playoff numbers which show a mix of success and failure.
The Yankees are far from a guarantee for the 2014 postseason. Closer David Robertson needs help in their bullpen, and there's not a single sure thing in the starting rotation.
Still, though, the Yankees have shown a distinct game plan on the other side of the ball that seems to originate in their postseason failings from this decade. Perhaps they've finally realized that the long ball may win divisions, but it usually doesn't bring home championships.