Yankees’ new outfielder is off to a hot start again; will it last this time?

MLB: Houston Astros at New York Yankees
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365 days ago, Alex Verdugo was on top of the world.

The 26-year-old outfielder was finally having “the year”, launching five home runs through his first 35 games with a 137 wRC+ and 1.1 fWAR for the Boston Red Sox. He was having about as good of a start to a season as he’s ever had, and with free agency less than two years away at that point, it looked like Alex Verdugo might even have a chance to work out a team extension with Boston and become a franchise icon. His wRC+ from that point onward? 85.

Fast-forward to today, and Alex Verdugo once again remains on the top of the world.

The 27-year-old outfielder might finally be having “the year”, launching five home runs through his first 29 games with a 136 wRC+ and 1.0 fWAR for the New York Yankees. He’s having as good of a start to this season as he did last year, and with free agency less than a year away from this point, it looks like Alex Verdugo might even have a chance to remain a Yankee after the 2024 season, even with their prospect pool and Juan Soto being a priority. His wRC+ from that point onward?

In a sport where the peaks are as high as the valleys are low, the Yankees and Alex Verdugo might have found a way to make sure he doesn’t flame out again.

Can Alex Verdugo Find a Way to Remain Consistent With the Yankees?

MLB: Houston Astros at New York Yankees
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Something that immediately stood out about the decision to trade for Alex Verdugo was the fact that Fenway might have been in the wrong ballpark for his skillset. While he can hit baseballs as hard as 112 MPH, his raw power is nothing to write home about, and Verdugo would have to contend with a vast right field that held in multiple pulled flyballs that would get out at Yankee Stadium.

Even two or three more home runs in a season can seriously boost your wRC+ numbers, and from 2021-2023, Baseball Savant’s Expected Home Run metric estimates that he would have averaged roughly four more home runs a season had he played his games in the Bronx, with the biggest discrepancy between actual and expected home runs being in 2022, where Verdugo hit just 11 home runs but would have had 20 in New York.

The goal for Alex Verdugo was to get out in front more often on his flyballs so that he could maximize his power tool and give the Yankees some slug. At first, it wasn’t working at all, as Verdugo only had an 18.9% Hard-Hit%, with the average ball in play clocking in at just 83.1 MPH. His 81 wRC+ was a reflection of his awful quality of contact numbers, but he’d make one key adjustment that would allow him to get the most out of his profile.

With a 33.3% pulled flyball rate over his last 23 games, Verdugo has four home runs and a .512 SLG%, maintaining elite contact rates and working plenty of walks in the process.

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Comparing his hot start last year to his hot start this year, we’re seeing that Alex Verdugo has improved both his strikeout and walk rates while also pulling the baseball a lot more. The swing decisions are significantly better, as Verdugo went from being in the 33rd Percentile in SEAGER to the 73rd Percentile thanks to a more aggressive approach at the plate against hittable pitches.

In his introductory press conference, Alex Verdugo reflected on some of the negatives that came with his approach last season, as he would sometimes make weak contact early in counts and pass up on better outcomes. He’s somehow found a way to generate more pulled flyballs while walking more and striking out less, a massive improvement that could lead to a breakout campaign. I don’t believe we’ll be seeing a 130 wRC+ season from Alex Verdugo, but something in the 110-115 range would be a great outcome.

Another aspect of this is his defensive value, as Alex Verdugo has been one of the top defensive left fielders in baseball, a massive step up from what the Yankees have been used to in recent years. He has +3 Outs Above Average in left field this year, which is the fifth-best mark among left fielders, and from 2021-2023 the production we’ve seen at that position has been flat-out abysmal.

MLB: Houston Astros at New York Yankees
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Since 2021, the Yankees have a 1.5 fWAR and 84 wRC+ from the left field position, one of the least productive position groups in the league. Alex Verdugo simply makes plays that wouldn’t have gotten made by any left fielder we threw out there in 2022 or 2023, and it’s easy to observe the difference. Due to his excellent defensive value, Verdugo can be a productive player even when he isn’t hitting well, and that’s something that often gets overlooked in player analysis.

Currently on pace for 4.7 WAR over 600 Plate Appearances, Alex Verdugo is having a great start to his walk season, but as many Red Sox fans have pointed out, the question has always centered around sustainability. How will Verdugo respond to an extended slump in the middle of a season? Only time will truly tell, but with a more sound approach centered around getting your A-Swing off on pitches over the heart of the plate while having the bat control and discipline to work deep counts, it seems plausible.

Steamer projects a 113 wRC+ for Alex Verdugo for the rest of the season, and that kind of outcome would be ideal for both parties. He’s at the same place he was last year, but his approach at the plate might be better suited for the Yankees to get the most out of Verdugo.

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