Mike Yastrzemski’s Breakout Is (Mostly) Real

There are a lot of reasons the San Francisco Giants, typically a contender now gone moribund, are hanging around the .500 mark. One is the breakout of outfielder Mike Yastrzemski, grandson of legendary Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Carl. Hitting .294/.402/.563 for a 158 wRC+ and ranking second among MLB hitters with 2.3 WAR, Yaz: The Next Generation is a legitimate MVP candidate, though he’s likely stymied in that endeavor by Fernando Tatis Jr. But Yaz’s sterling 2020 campaign represents broad improvement in a number of areas to the extent that it’s likely that he’s truly established a new baseline of performance at age 30.

The natural inclination for the Orioles would be to think of Yastrzemski as the one that got away. Back in the 1987 Baseball Abstract, Bill James coined the term of “Ken Phelps All-Star,” referring to overlooked players who could play in the majors but for one reason or another did not have the full opportunity to prove it. Sometimes it was a limitation that teams just couldn’t overlook. Sometimes the player broke out past an age where teams could be bothered to care. Sometimes it was simply an inability to understand baseball performance. While the last seems a little mean, 1980s front offices were not particularly progressive in terms of baseball analysis. It’s useful to remember when we’re fighting over stuff like volatility of defensive measures in WAR or FIP vs. ERA that just a generation ago, drawing walks wasn’t widely accepted as both a real skill and a skill worth valuing.

But that’s not really Yastrzemski. This isn’t someone who was spending his mid-20s terrorizing Triple-A hitters and failing to get an opportunity; he put up a .688 OPS at age 24 and a .716 at 25. The last name certainly wasn’t giving him any more opportunities than he deserved. Perusing his minor league translations would give you the idea that his glove played enough to be a fifth outfielder for someone but that his bat had little of his grandfather in it.

ZiPS Minor League Translations – Mike Yastrzemski
2013 .219 .281 .326 215 22 47 10 2 3 19 16 60 5 0.2
2014 .222 .266 .360 553 59 123 24 8 12 56 27 156 11 -0.6
2015 .212 .268 .312 490 50 104 23 4 6 43 32 141 6 0.0
2016 .223 .294 .371 480 58 107 23 3 14 51 47 144 11 18.5
2017 .245 .304 .431 364 49 89 17 3 15 48 31 107 3 11.8
2018 .224 .297 .372 441 52 99 22 5 11 48 42 121 6 10.0

ZiPS, which uses minor league hit ball location to roughly estimate a ZR-type of defensive statistic, really liked Little Yaz’s defense, but as a hitter he only translated with an OPS above .700 on a single occasion. When the Orioles traded him to the Giants for another minor league veteran, Tyler Herb, few eyebrows were raised. Yaz started the 2019 season for Triple-A Sacramento, playing all three outfield positions. His bat suddenly came alive in May and in a 15-game stretch, he hit .442/.532/1.038 with nine homers. The Giants were struggling to get anything from their outfield at this point in the 2019 campaign, so why not take a look at Yastrzemski?

Giants Outfielders Through 5/24/19
Tyler Austin 28 .268 .349 .589 142 0.6
Kevin Pillar 45 .232 .264 .384 67 0.1
Michael Reed 4 .000 .000 .000 -100 -0.1
Connor Joe 8 .067 .125 .067 -46 -0.2
Mike Gerber 4 .067 .125 .133 -32 -0.2
Yangervis Solarte 28 .206 .247 .315 44 -0.3
Gerardo Parra 30 .198 .278 .267 45 -0.3
Steven Duggar 47 .237 .286 .344 67 -0.3
Mac Williamson 15 .118 .211 .196 14 -0.4

When a player used mainly as a pinch-hitter is leading your outfielders in WAR and the dude with eight hitless at-bats is third, something’s going wrong. The Giants weren’t going anywhere at 21-29, and rather than do what a lot of organizations would do and simply trade for some random veteran outfielder or find Carlos Gonzalez’s phone number, they decided to take a look at Yaz. This is something I feel that a lot of clubs, even some very progressive ones otherwise, don’t always do well: if you can’t get someone good, get someone interesting. And Mike Yastrzemski was interesting.

Yastrzemski wasn’t an instant sensation with the Giants or anything like that, but he showed enough of a pulse at the plate and defensively in Oracle Park’s large outfield to keep getting playing time. He truly his his stride after the All-Star break, hitting .287/.354/.562 in the second half.

As Andrew Baggarly and Grant Brisbee wrote when discussing Yastrzemski’s breakout, he did it in large part by feasting on two-strike counts more than most hitters did. More than half of his home runs (11 of 21) came on two-strike counts. This year, it’s seven of eight. As Baggarly and Brisbee noted, Yaz is no longer as worried about striking out.

That does not mean adhering to the longstanding and now somewhat outdated advice that hitting coaches always preached about a two-strike approach. Yastrzemski used to choke up, spread out, shorten his swing, expand the zone.

“But I don’t anymore,” he said. “Because the whole idea of hitting is to try to get off your best swing as many times as you possibly can and hope you run into one at any of those points. That mentality stays the same. I’m still trying to get my best swing off even when the guy’s trying to strike me out.”

Yastrzemski credited the Giants’ hitting group of Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele, and Dustin Lind for continually reminding him that there’s no shame in striking out, especially if you’ve taken your optimal swing and made a good swing decision.

So, Yaz is pretty good now. What does it mean from a projection standpoint? Just to see how much of Yaz’s outlook has changed, here are his 2021-2024 projections made at three points: after 2018, after 2019, and right now (or at least a few hours ago). To keep the comparisons as consistent as possible, I’ve instructed ZiPS to not reduce any playing time due to ability.

ZiPS Projection – Mike Yastrzemski (Pre-2019)
2021 .227 .294 .373 440 51 100 24 5 10 47 39 120 5 80 8 0.9
2022 .226 .292 .362 425 48 96 23 4 9 44 37 112 4 77 8 0.7
2023 .224 .287 .350 406 45 91 21 3 8 41 34 101 4 72 7 0.4
2024 .222 .283 .341 387 41 86 19 3 7 37 31 91 3 69 7 0.2

ZiPS Projection – Mike Yastrzemski (Pre-2020)
2021 .245 .313 .435 441 62 108 25 4 17 59 41 122 4 99 7 1.9
2022 .244 .311 .431 427 58 104 24 4 16 56 39 115 4 98 6 1.7
2023 .240 .305 .418 409 54 98 22 3 15 51 36 105 4 93 6 1.4
2024 .237 .299 .404 389 49 92 20 3 13 46 33 95 3 88 5 1.0

ZiPS Projection – Mike Yastrzemski (Now)
2021 .259 .331 .480 487 74 126 27 6 23 73 49 143 5 115 4 3.1
2022 .256 .328 .478 469 70 120 26 6 22 70 47 136 4 114 4 2.8
2023 .254 .327 .476 452 66 115 25 6 21 66 45 129 4 113 3 2.6
2024 .251 .321 .464 431 61 108 23 6 19 61 41 118 3 108 3 2.2

In the eyes of ZiPS, the 2019 season was enough to turn Yastrzemski from a role player to a legitimate stopgap starter for a few seasons. In about six weeks of 2020, he’s done enough to re-write the headline once again. No, ZiPS doesn’t see future MVP contention being likely, but what he’s done is at least enough to change the expectation to that of an above-average player, one can make an All-Star Game in his better seasons (and certainly would have if we had one this year). He’s unlikely to maintain his current .360 BABIP, but he doesn’t really need to; his plate discipline has improved, he can play defense, hit some doubles and homers, and has hit .359 against the shift. The fact that he’s already 30 counts against him in terms of long-term evaluation — players like the seemingly ageless Nelson Cruz are the exception rather than the rule — but he’s a key part of San Francisco’s lineup and likely will remain so for at least a few years.

For a team trying to rebuild without a full teardown, finding a player like Yastrzemski is a boon to the club’s future outlook. And maybe he will be an MVP contender in 2021 and beyond; it won’t be the first time Mike Yastrzemski proved everyone wrong.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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1 year ago

I’m flummoxed at the moment by Will Smith. Seems he will be a superstar. SOMEHOW putting up a 162 wRC+ with only a 200 BABIP. Now that’s impressive.

1 year ago
Reply to  TwinPeaks

Sure it’s irrelevant to this article, but I don’t understand why this is downvoted when I checked and it’s true

1 year ago
Reply to  hombremomento

Don’t waste time figuring out why things get downvoted!

1 year ago
Reply to  hombremomento

I probably deserved it for posting good things about a Dodgers player on a post about the Giants….

1 year ago
Reply to  TwinPeaks

That doesn’t make him a superstar or mean that he will be one. OPS dervitates such as wRC+ worship HR and walk rate. Those happen to be Smith’s strengths. There are a lot of realities lost in that kind of crude analysis. That really isn’t that amazing of a SSS. DJ Stewart is doing something even more impressive.. although that surely isn’t the word. Wherever there is a guy hitting for a terrible average yet taking walks and hitting some HR you will find similar results. Lots of players that take a lot of walks and hit a lot of HR hit for very low averages – they essentially lack hit tools. Joc Pederson and Carlos Santana are reasonable examples as is Carlos Santana. That BABIP isn’t all luck like people like to think. In Smith’s case, there might be some bad luck in regard to hits but there is also certainly luck in the BB and HR that he has hit so it really isn’t that insightful. I think Will Smith is a fine offensive catcher but he is no superstar.

1 year ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

Well, Stewart is doing it with an extreme small sample size (just 9 balls in play) while Smith has 45 balls in play. I mean, everything is SSS this year, but he’s got an amazingly improved BB/K ratio and great power in that SSS. No, BABIP isn’t all luck, but Smith isn’t slow (he’s fast for a catcher) and he’s hitting the ball hard (94.2 average EV) so you have to think that his BABIP will improve.

1 year ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

Who is other Carlos Santana? 😉

Travis Lmember
1 year ago
Reply to  TwinPeaks

Because most of his value is coming from the homer, which happens when you hit flyballs, which have a lower BABIP? (Not being sarcastic – 200 BABIP feels quite low, but I suspect his batted ball distribution indicates he’s not going to be a 275 guy. And this year, leaguewide babip is down, while wRC+ is normalized for context, so wouldn’t be similarly effected).

1 year ago
Reply to  Travis L

Fair points, but if you look at the top 50 guys by wRC+ (min 70 PA), the next lowest BABIP on the list is 270. Even though Smith does have the highest FB rate among the group, it isn’t that much higher than everybody else that it would explain a 200 BABIP. Rhys Hoskins has a very similar batted ball profile and is much slower than Smith, yet has a 294 BABIP.

1 year ago
Reply to  TwinPeaks

on a post about a giants player you have to bring up a dodger in the comments, smh

1 year ago
Reply to  sjwalsh

That’s solid Dodgers trolling. Nice job!