Will the Yankees unlock the potential of new corner outfielder in 2024?

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Alex Verdugo is one of the most polarizing players on the New York Yankees, as not only is he coming off of his worst season at the plate since 2018, but he’s also a bold personality. There are many people he’s rubbed the wrong way, including fans in the Bronx who have hated his shenanigans with the Boston Red Sox over the past four seasons. From a public feud with manager Alex Cora to an outspoken personality that has gotten him into trouble at times, he’ll have to silence the critics who will watch with even more scrutiny than in years past.

A contact-first bat with some raw power he needs to tap into, could the Yankees find a way to unlock the 27-year-old’s potential in 2024?

A Shift Towards a More Aggressive Approach At the Plate

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees
Aug 18, 2023; Bronx, New York, USA; Boston Red Sox right fielder Alex Verdugo (99) hits a double in the first inning against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Making good decisions at the plate is important, but sometimes, we overvalue patience and selectiveness in hitters and leave greater run-scoring opportunities on the table. On the one hand, being overly aggressive can lead to at-bats that end much earlier than they should, but on the other, they can result in crushing a pitch that a pitcher leaves a bit too high over the heart of the plate. Everyone knows that aggression can have negative consequences for a hitter, but the negative consequences of being too selective are far less discussed.

Sure, Alex Verdugo has one of the lowest Chase Rates in baseball, but does that mean he makes good swing decisions, or is he just a selective hitter? As we learn more about hitting, we need to separate the connotations of aggression and patience, as both don’t inherently make for a good or bad hitter. When looking at Verdugo, the Yankees need to find a way to get him to be more aggressive because his swing decisions have gone from solid to downright awful over the past few seasons.

SEAGER is a metric developed by Robert Orr of Baseball Prospectus, and it measures the quality of swing decisions for a hitter, rewarding them for not only laying off bad pitches but also for swinging at ones to hit. Hitters can truly be too passive at the plate, and Alex Verdugo is an excellent example of what happens when you’re not aggressive enough. He doesn’t make good swing decisions despite his patient approach, and the Yankees will have to help him make adjustments to improve upon that.

If he’s able to swing at more hittable pitches, the Yankees might see him tap into his game power more, and Yankee Stadium is the perfect ballpark for that. Since 2021, the Bronx has the second-highest wOBA for pulled flyballs from left-handed hitters, and Statcast believes that Alex Verdugo would have eight more home runs over the past two seasons had he played all of his games there. The goal isn’t to make Verdugo an aggressive hitter, it’s just to make him less selective and sacrifice some chases for more in-zone aggression.

Earlier swing decisions result in more pulled contact as well, and he discussed the concept of potentially getting out in front of the ball more in his opening press conference following his trade to the Yankees. He doesn’t have overwhelming power tools, but he does possess a really good hit tool and feel for contact that has allowed him to hit for a solid average with the Boston Red Sox. A variable that could play to his benefit might be the addition of new hitting coach James Rowson, who I think is the right coach for a personality like Alex Verdugo.

The Yankees Might Be the Best Landing Spot for Alex Verdugo

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Detroit Tigers assistant hitting coach James Rowson watches a play during the fifth inning against Kansas City Royals at Comerica Park in Detroit on Wednesday, June 21, 2023.

An interesting tidbit from Alex Verdugo’s opening presser was his implied shot at former manager Alex Cora, and while that doesn’t bode well for the notion that he’s matured, it did reveal the rift between the two.

“I’m very, very excited to work with Aaron. I’ve seen the way he’s had his players’ backs…That’s something I want to see out of my head coach, man. I want to see some fire, some fight for the guys. I think just instead of airing people out, have their backs.”

– Alex Verdugo

We’ll see how the relationship between Alex Verdugo and Aaron Boone evolves throughout the season, but the connection I’m most intrigued by is the one between him and James Rowson. Some of the quotes from players on the Minnesota Twins who played while he was their hitting coach would suggest that he’s one of the most positive and supportive figures in baseball, and that might be exactly what Verdugo needs to get his mind right.

Yes, Verdugo’s confidence and brash nature make him a fun player to watch when he’s playing well, but they’ve also caused him to unravel both on and off the field when things aren’t going so well. His struggles compound, and that’s something that James Rowson could potentially aid him in avoiding by remaining a positive voice in his ear. Not everyone is conditioned for tough love, and Byron Buxton gave an excellent quote about positive affirmations and the way players are empowered by them.

“He told me each and every day, ‘You’re the best player’…I had to mentally prepare myself each and every day like ‘You know what? I am the best player.’ Once my mindset shifted to [that], the other stuff didn’t matter.”

– Byron Buxton
MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals
Jul 30, 2023; Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Minnesota Twins designated hitter Byron Buxton (25) bats during the eighth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Byron Buxton was a first-round pick who didn’t find his bat until his age-25 season, posting an ugly 77 wRC+ and slugging just .387 through his first 306 games. While Verdugo is much further along in his career, the shift to a mindset that enables one to believe they’re capable of so much more might be exactly what he needs. This isn’t to say that Alex Verdugo is going to have a 171 wRC+ at any point during his career or hit 28 home runs in 92 games, but rather he might find more comfort in being aggressive and trying to be one of the best outfielders in the game.

The advantage he has with the Yankees that he didn’t in Boston is that he’ll be surrounded by two of the best hitters in the world, no longer needing to be an anchor of the lineup or the face of a trade that has dimmed the identity of a historic franchise. Pressure from being the centerpiece of the Mookie Betts trade likely seeped into his personality and play, it’s a city and environment that can’t truly embrace him because of what they parted ways with to acquire him and what that trade has resembled for the Red Sox.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Toronto Blue Jays
Sep 15, 2023; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Boston Red Sox right fielder Alex Verdugo (99) reacts to being called out during the ninth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Is this a woe-is-me story for Alex Verdugo? Absolutely not; his off-field issues are of his own volition, and there is nothing Alex Cora and the Boston Red Sox could do to change the actions he took. As much as affirmations are important, so is the ability to hold yourself accountable and do the right thing for not just yourself but your team as well. New York is unforgiving, and if he intends on making it here without the ability to hold himself accountable, he’ll have another thing coming for him.

This is a career-defining season for Alex Verdugo, as he’ll enter free agency next season and look to secure a multi-year contract with another team. If it doesn’t work with the Yankees, then teams and media alike will sour even more on him, and they’d have every right to do so. New York is a tough place to play, but as Alex Verdugo pointed out, the Yankees have an extremely supportive culture set by Aaron Boone, so if it doesn’t work here, I have a hard time believing it would work anywhere.