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Mudville: July 23, 2024 8:44 pm PDT

Hitting Home

BY KEVIN KERNAN

A funny thing happens when you apply long established baseball techniques to talented players.

You get baseball.

And that is what is happening with the Yankees, who are off to a phenomenal start; the kind of start that was needed to get the Yankees to believe in themselves and believe in baseball again.

This is not just about Juan Soto playing at the top of his talented game, although that is a big reason for the new look Yankees, who played such uninspired baseball in 2023. You could almost see the wheels turning last season as the Yankee hitters went through the over-analytical approach they were handed. The Yankees were the worst hitting club in the major leagues with a .227 average, again, the worst in the majors.

“The A’s hit .223”, you say.

Yes they did, but the Oakland A’s are nothing close to being a major league club. They are the St. Louis Browns reincarnated – but that is a Baseball or Bust for another day. The Browns existed from 1902 to 1953 in the American League and finished with only 11 winning seasons, they finished dead last 10 times. In 1954 they moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles.

We’re talking Yankees today.

The Yankees are doing something this year that I have been pleading with them to do in previous seasons.

Ditch the Nerd Ball and play baseball.

Oswaldo Cabrera #95 of the New York Yankees and Alex Verdugo #24 celebrate after the game against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on March 31, 2024 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

Something as simple as actually having outfielders in the outfield as opposed to infielders playing the outfield, or journeymen outfielders who are in the last leg of their baseball journey playing the outfield makes a huge difference.

It’s a simple game, don’t make it difficult. In fact, it is so simple to comprehend it is hard to believe that the Yankees went in that other wayward direction.

The Yankees fully embraced ridiculous new wave philosophies such as “Hit Strikes Hard’’ to “Strikeouts Don’t Matter” to “Anybody Can Play Anywhere’’ and that doomed the Yankees last season. They also acted financially like Billy Beane’s A’s.

The Yankees need to pay some stars.

Their hitting approach this season, in one word is “professional.’’

As one longtime talent evaluator noted: “Amazing what quality major league hitting coaches can do. No more launch, lift and separate approaches.’’

The new/old way is paying dividends.

The Yankees, as another baseball person told me, so far understand that “the most important number is the score, and not their spin rates or their exit velos’’ or other data creeping into their approach at the plate.

I’d say Aaron Judge had some serious talks with Hal Steinbrenner about getting the Yankees back on a true baseball path and that is making all the difference.

You know what, more teams should try playing baseball.

Here is something else, the Yankees have done a really nice job of drafting up the middle talent especially like on Monday in Arizona against the Diamondbacks – a team that went to the World Series in 2023 – as the Yankees featured a lineup that had Austin Wells, a first-round pick in 2020, 28th overall, at catcher; Anthony Volpe, a first-round pick in 2019, 30th overall at shortstop and in centerfield Aaron Judge, a first-round pick in 2013, 32nd overall.

Anthony Volpe #11 and Austin Wells #88 of the New York Yankees talk before the Opening Day game against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on March 28, 2024 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by New York Yankees/Getty Images)

Being strong up the middle has always been a key to success in baseball and three homegrown talents up the middle makes that even more satisfying; and the fact that Judge moved from right to center to help the team says a lot, too.

And yes, I understand this is not the Orioles young talent, but the Orioles had the benefit of top draft selections, including shortstop Jackson Holliday at No. 1 overall in 2022 and catcher Adley Rutschman No. 1 overall in 2019. Their game plan was pretty simple.

Let’s finish last so we can draft first.

The Orioles are a top team now and the Yankees are going to have to take care of business against them this year if they are to win the AL East. The rest of the division has slipped mightily.

The Red Sox, who were behemoths under the leadership of Larry Lucchino, a man I knew well beginning with the days when we were both in San Diego, who passed away Tuesday at the age of 78. Lucchino not only built winning teams – I used to joke with him that he was the Johnny Appleseed of Ballparks, having orchestrated the building of wonderful ballparks like Camden Yards and Petco Park and the innovative changes and renovations made to Fenway Park; and in the minor leagues there was JetBlue Park, the Red Sox spring training home in Fort Myers and Polar Park, the club’s AAA ballpark In Worcester, Massachusetts.

Lucchino’s Padres won the NL pennant in 1998 and were swept in the World Series by the Yankees. In Boston, three of Lucchino’s Red Sox teams won World Series, including the 2004 team that came back from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Yankees in the ALCS and then won the World Series by sweeping the Cardinals, breaking the Red Sox 86-year curse. Larry came up with the term “Evil Empire” to describe George Steinbrenner’s Yankees.

Rest in Peace Larry, your achievements are Hall of Fame achievements. He is in the Padres Hall of Fame and the Red Sox Hall of Fame and should be inducted into Cooperstown someday. He took on the Evil Empire and won.

These Yankees don’t have to worry about the Red Sox for a while.

Play baseball and see where it takes you. That is all Yankee fans ask.

Also in the division, the Blue Jays seem to have serious internal problems. “Their clubhouse is a nightmare,’’ one baseball man told BallNine.

It is never wise to underestimate the Rays, but they do seem to have had some slippage as well.

It’s early and the Yankees are on top of the AL East, and that is a good place to be at any time of the year – and is much better than the early alternative, just look at the Yankees crosstown rivals the Mets.

The Yankees still have so much to prove. They always seem to be one injury away from falling apart, and with Gerrit Cole down and out with elbow problems, their success could disappear quickly, but the point is the Yankees are at least trying to be a baseball team in 2024 and not be some over-analytical science project.

Play baseball and see where it takes you. That is all Yankee fans ask.

There is no better view of the Yankees new baseball approach than watching Anthony Volpe take his at-bats in 2024 compared to 2023. Volpe is a little more upright and is not wildly propelling himself out of the hitting zone attempting to Hit Strikes Hard.

“He’s the kid he was when he first signed before he hit all those home runs in that bandbox in AA, where he thought he was a home run hitter… and last year he did his imitation of Aaron Judge all year swinging out of his ass, and hitting popups and striking out,’’ said one scout who has followed the shortstop since 2019.

“He cut his swing down, he is using the field, with two strikes he is going the other way,’’ the scout said. “I will say, more guys are doing that stuff.’’

That may be the most encouraging thing I have heard about baseball in 2024. Some hitters are back to being hitters and not just swinging the bat in hopes of launching a home run ball.

They have elevated their hitting intelligence instead of always elevating their launch angle swing.

“Kyle Schwarber has cut his swing down with two strikes,’’ the scout said. “He’s not punching out as much.’’

Brewers hitters put the ball in play against the Mets.

Hitting Coach James Rowson #62 of the New York Yankees talks with Oswald Peraza #91 during spring training at George M. Steinbrenner Field on February 22, 2024 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by New York Yankees/Getty Images)

The Yankees hired James Rowson and Pat Roessler as hitting coaches and they are making a difference, Former hitting coach Dillon Lawson was fired mid-season last season, and previously was the Yankees minor league hitting coordinator whose mantra was “Hit Strikes Hard.’’

How about, let’s make contact and drive the ball to all fields, something I have been preaching to Yankees management for years. In 2022 in a column here at BallNine entitled 3-2-1 Contact, I noted that when you live by the HSH mantra “you are asking for trouble’’ especially when it comes to October baseball.

In the 2022 ALCS the Yankees hit .162 when they were swept away by the Astros. They decided to run it all back in 2023 until Lawson was fired and even then, they didn’t make the postseason.

It was past time to get back to the tried and true basics of hitting.

With Volpe doing this, by making contact, and driving the ball, he can use his speed, the same goes for Oswaldo Cabrera. He has cut down his swing and does not have the big leg kick.

All spring this scout was telling me he liked what he saw in this version of Cabrera and it has carried over into the early part of the regular season as Cabrera fills in for the injured DJ LeMahieu. Both Volpe and Cabrera bring speed to the Yankees lineup, something that is essential today in the “steal any base you want’’ world of Rob Manfred.

“Cabrera is a good little baseball player,’’ the scout said, offering the simplest of high praise. “The Yankees have undervalued what he brings to the table.’’

Cabrera’s value is rising this year. In that ALCS against the Astros, Cabrera was hitless in nine at-bats. In the four-game series against the Astros to open this season in Houston, Cabrera batted .438 with two home runs.

Juan Soto is putting on a master class on putting the ball in play and having that kind of hitter on the team helps everyone. He has helped hitters like Cabrera with his approach, too.

Juan Soto #22 of the New York Yankees celebrates with third base coach Luis Rojas #67 of the New York Yankees after a solo home run in the seventh inning at Minute Maid Park on March 30, 2024 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

This is the best version of Soto because he is playing for a contract and don’t underestimate the fact that Roessler was one of his hitting coaches with the Nationals when Soto was at his best. There is a comfort level between the two and that goes a long way in the batter’s box.

“Soto is playing for dollars right now,’’ a scout said. “He’s being a solid citizen, he’s going to have a monster year. He wants to make more money than Shohei Ohtani makes.’’

Hitting really is contagious. And it starts with the approach. Make contact, drive the ball.

“Gleyber Torres is a different hitter this year, he is using the whole field,’’ the scout said. “The Yankees now definitely have a much better approach delivered by guys who have been in the game versus these fly-by-night guys they hired in the past.’’

It’s okay to dig into numbers but there has to be practical approach to hitting too, and for now, the Yankees are taking that approach even though Aaron Judge has not yet found his stride. You have to wonder if the spring training abdominal injury he suffered is affecting his swing.

Like all teams the Yankees must stay healthy and Gerrit Cole has to show he can come back from this serious elbow injury. It’s one thing to say he is feeling better now but he is not throwing. The Yankees really won’t get a definitive answer on Cole until he starts cranking up his pitches with full velocity and full spin.

But at least a good start to this season, especially on the road, can set a tone and the Yankees desperately needed to change the narrative of last year’s complete failure of a season. Their bullpen ERA has been off the charts with a 0.46 mark entering Tuesday as well.

It is so valuable for players to see immediate results – and I am not talking about getting numbers off the iPad between innings. Information is good but in this game of baseball you have to be so careful not to over-think everything. In the end, the only numbers that matter are the numbers on the scoreboard at the end of the game.

Leave it to the great Yogi Berra, the philosopher ballplayer. In these 10 simple words Yogi said it all. “How can you think and hit at the same time?’’

Yogi last hit in 1965, 59 years ago, yet in 2024, Yogi’s wise words still hit home.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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