Under normal circumstances, a team does not want a player with a .121 BABIP in its lineup, let alone batting cleanup. Yet, the Yankees are doing just that. Mark Teixeira is hitting fourth and has produced a stellar 141 wRC+ despite his microscopic BABIP. How has he done it? Aside from his 10 home runs, Mark has exhibited excellent plate discipline.
Last year, Teixeira struck out a career-worst 21.5% of the time. Maybe he was still shaking off the rust from missing most of 2013, maybe he was aging, maybe it was something else. What was worrisome was that it was a large jump from his career norms which generally hovered between 16-17%. This season, Teixeira is down to 13.9%. And given that he’s accumulated 108 plate appearances, we know this isn’t blind luck. There’s been some degree of skill involved in his improvement to this point of the season.
There are a few drivers of Teixeira’s dwindling strikeout rate. First, he’s laying off pitches out of the zone. Since 2007, the switch-hitter has swung at roughly one-in-four pitches not in the zone (O-Swing%), per PITCHf/x. He was up to 28.1% last year, but has improved the mark to 20.5% in 2015. Mark has always had a discerning eye (11.4% career BB%), but this is a marked improvement. To no surprise, his low O-Swing% has resulted in a 14.8% walk rate. Additionally, the first baseman isn’t missing strikes he swings at. Teixeira has made contact with 94.2% of pitches in the zone (Z-Contact%), up from 90.2% since 2007. The combination of a reduced O-Swing% and increased Z-Contact% explains why Teixeira has cut down on his strikeouts thus far.
With fewer strikeouts comes more opportunities to force the defense record an out. That hasn’t been much of a problem for opponents, however. Teixeira’s low line drive rate (13.2%) and high fly ball rate (47.4%) isn’t a recipe for a decent BABIP. Still, hitting 27.8% of fly balls out of the park will make up for a poor batted ball profile, hence the 141 wRC+ (the walks help, too). Now, that HR/FB rate likely isn’t sustainable, but his line drive rate should regress as well.
Mark’s BABIP will always be low given the type of hitter he is, but in the long run we should see more balls fall in for hits. If he can maintain his good approach at the plate, particularly keeping strikeouts down, 2015 will turn out to be a rebound season. He’s certainly due for some regression to the mean, but his season’s outlook certainly has improved thanks to his start. Prior to the season, ZiPS forecasted a .334 wOBA and a 19.4% strikeout rate in 2015. With new information, ZiPS now projects a .342 wOBA and 18.5% strikeout rate for the rest of the year. That’s a big improvement! Pretty unexpected, too. It must be the power of the mustache.
PITCHf/x plate discipline data and ZiPS projections via Fangraphs.