Travis Hafner is hitting like it’s 2005. The 35-year-old has raced to a .318/.438/.667 line, replete with six home runs, three doubles and a triple in April. He has helped breathe life into a lineup missing its usual stars. With Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson, and Alex Rodriguez all shelved, the Yankees have still managed 4.6 runs per game, good for ninth in the league.
The Yankees’ lineup has been 14 runs above average this year by wRAA. Hafner is at plus-9 himself, powering the Yankees lineup like he powered those mid-2000s Cleveland teams.
Hafner’s three-year peak from 2004 through 2006 rivals that of any designated hitter ever. He posted wRC+ marks of 158, 166 and 176 respectively with at least 129 games played these three season. The stretch compares favorably to the best three consecutive years from David Ortiz (2005-07, 157-157-175) and Edgar Martinez (1995-97, 184-165-166). Hafner’s wRC+ heading into Wednesday’s action sits at 192.
Hafner earned something of a reputation as a meathead, grip-it-and-rip-it slugger (as colleague Mike Axisa put it) — as I suppose would be expected from someone nicknamed “Pronk” — but his game was well-rounded at his peak. His strikeout rates, although higher than average, never reached the levels of big whiffers like Adam Dunn, Ryan Howard or Russell Branyan. He took walks — seven consecutive seasons with a walk rate above 10 percent. And he hit the ball hard to all parts of the diamond. Each of his peak years featured a BABIP above .320 and he still owns a career .313 mark over a 4,563 PA body of work.
Hafner wasn’t able to maintain his crazy power levels after his peak years, though. Whether it was the litany of injuries he dealt with — from a broken hand to shoulder surgery to knee issues — or just the normal effects of aging, Hafner’s ability to hit for power to the opposite field dropped off significantly after 2006. After posting HR/FB rates over seven percent to the opposite field in his peak years — nearly double the usual rate for lefties — Hafner fell under 5 percent for the rest of his career. He has one opposite field home run this year, his first since 2009.
But his pull power, even on the decline, has been excellent. Only once has he posted a HR/FB under 35 percent to right field, in an injury-shortened (even more than usual) 2008. This year, his mark sits at just 20 percent, but four of his six home runs have been right on the borderline between right and center judging by HitTracker Online’s graph:
Hafner is enjoying Yankee Stadium’s right field power alley — his four home runs at home are the four farthest right in the above graphic. And he’s just raking at home in general — he owns a .351/.455/.784 line at home and has two doubles and a triple to go with the homers. Hafner didn’t hit a single home run in this area last year, but Yankee Stadium is the perfect place to leverage his power. The power alley in right field plays directly into his strengths. Observe, the difference in average home run length by angle for Progressive Field and Yankee Stadium:
The key is in the shaded area, highlighting the differences between the right field power alleys. Hafner’s move to New York has given him significantly more leeway with his fly balls and line drives to this area — one of the areas lefties hit to most often. If his increase in fly ball rate — up to 52 percent this year from 38 percent career — holds up, he’ll be able to leverage his pull power with more home runs that would be harmless fly balls elsewhere.
Whether it’s scored as pull or center, the home runs Yankee Stadium’s shorter fences can provide should help Travis Hafner keep his rebirth going as long as he stays healthy. For the meager $2 million the Yankees paid, they’ll surely get their money’s worth.
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