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Player Review: Mike Yastrzemski

Yaz can only be Yaz.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Los Angeles Dodgers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

2023 stats: 106 G, 381 PA, .233/.330/.445/.775 (113 OPS +), 11.8 BB%, 26 K%, 1.8 fWAR

Mike Yastrzemski is the San Francisco Giant of the Farhan Zaidi era. A stolid platoon with veteran steadiness, echoing Buster Posey, Evan Longoria, Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford without their peaks, but the added thrill of name recognition while being plucked from obscurity.

For better or worse, these Giants in recent seasons have flowed in-and-out of Yaz. He’s best embraced a philosophy of batter’s box stinginess. Swing less, drive the ball more. Don’t chase pitches out of the zone, don’t chase pitches that are in the zone but can’t be hit hard. There’s a certain machine-like quality to the performance, a player’s factory setting with the more variable characteristics that produce the great along with the terrible removed.

These Zaidi agents are chess pieces who serve their side best in certain game situations. Knights at the center of a crowded board or intruding an enemy’s line can harass an opponent, yet they’re susceptible to an easy attack by an advancing pawn. What they can’t do undermines what they can do. Treat them too dearly and you find yourself at the endgame with a pair of horses who can’t walk straight.

Those cut from the same cloth of Yaz have had their successes: Alex Dickerson (who’s San Francisco debut in 2019 came two weeks after Yaz’s) in 2020, Darin Ruf in 2021, LaMonte Wade Jr. in 2023. And of course, they’ve also fallen on their faces in spectacular ways. Dickerson’s OPS in 2020: .947. His OPS in 2022: .407.

Though his story and batting profile is similar to the aforementioned, Yastrzemski has always been different. “Fundamentally sound” is Yaz’s most used descriptor. He’s a Toyota Corolla. Read: durable, dependable, cheap! What sets him apart is his glove. Ruf or Dickerson in left were a joke they even thought was funny, but the outfield has always seemed somewhat serious with Yaz in it.

Then there’s his consistency. It’s what’s made him more than just a feel-good story during the COVID-shortened season. His fWAR since 2019: 2.6, 2.0, 2.4, 2.3, 1.8. His 11.1 total WAR over that stretch is the most on the team, as is his 554 games and 2,107 plate appearances. Since 2021, his 6.5 fWAR has been outpaced by Brandon Crawford (thanks to his monster ‘21 season) and Thairo Estrada, while his 393 games and 1,471 PA are second only to Wilmer Flores. Once we rebound from that deflating realization that a solid player like Yaz still needs about 4 and a half seasons to match a single Shohei Ohtani season in terms of WAR, we can appreciate Yaz’s value to this club while also understanding the bind that reliance has put him in.

In a more supportive lineup, his role would’ve been streamlined to a right fielder and a lefty platoon bat. Less probably would’ve been more these past couple of years. Thanks to roster construction, sluggish player development, injury and lassitude of long, scuffling seasons, he’s often been called on to play through health, environs, and match-ups that aren’t set-up for his success.

He’s logged more innings in center than right in the past two years (923 to 901.2 innings). Only about a quarter of his plate appearances since ‘21 have come against southpaws—a percentage lower than Slater’s cuts against righties—but whittling those unfriendly match-ups down even further for both would probably be mutually beneficial. The addition of Jung Hoo Lee as a “true” center fielder will help with that, giving Yaz more innings and at-bats that play to his strengths.

That being said: he’s a baseball player, not a martyr. Giving him a bat and asking him to hit the ball with it is kind-of the deal, even if its not in the ideal scenario. As much as I love Mike Yastrzemski, he’s been a giant of the Giants during a very confusing period of Giants’s history. The vicissitudes of the team aren’t wholly explained by Yaz, nor is he wholly faultless. There are bigger problems with the organization, and it feels particularly cruel and besides the point, but I can’t help but wonder how life would be different if Yaz could hit lefties.

It would be an understatement to say the initial success he had against same-side arms in his first two seasons has never been replicated. In 2019-2020, his OPS of .967 (167 PA) against left-handed pitching was the highest of any other Giant. Since then, he’s managed a .557 OPS in nearly 350 PA—the fourth most opportunities on the club in that three season span. That’s a lot of offensive chances squandered.

In 2023 especially Yaz seemed to have two temperatures: scalding hot or ice cold. Yes, the platoon splits are problematic (.203/.250/.342/.592 in 85 PA against LHP), but his performance in team wins and losses are telling as well, and almost as stark as his tandem, Austin Slater’s. With 194 PA in 54 wins, he put together a .316/.404/.635/1.039 line. With 187 PA in 52 losses, he hit .153/.253/.252/.505.

While the extreme polarity of those numbers are hard to explain, it makes some sense that platoon bats like Yaz and Slater would have an outsize influence on outcomes. They’re a kick in the pants. Their bats are the ones managers look to insert and capitalize on leverage match-ups. A lot of meaningful at-bats come with the job. Maybe Yaz is more relaxed and hitting well when vibes are good, the team is competitive too and he feels like he’s in control. Those numbers in Giant victories are also aided by the fact that Yaz swung his best bat with runners in scoring position (.923 OPS, with a 137 tOPS+ relative to his other splits, and a 143 sOPS+ relative to the league). In plate appearances in the 7th inning or later with the Giants tied, ahead by one, or the tying run on-deck at least (“late & close” on Baseball Ref.), he again outperformed himself and the league with an 111 tOPS+ and 135 sOPS+. When he had a chance to tip the scales of a game and create some runs, Yaz often delivered.

One of Yaz’s best months this year aligned with the team’s ultimately-fleeting-but-deliriously-fun 18-8 stretch in June. The straight man’s penchant for on-field dramatics resulted in two season highlights: a 9th inning 2-strike, 2-out game-tying home run against the St. Louis Cardinals on June 14th, and a 3-run walk-off homer against the Padres (and a lefty) on the 19th.

Two days later he was dropped on the IL for re-aggravating his left-hamstring which he initially strained trying to track down a disastrous flare during a disastrous inning in Mexico City at the end of April.

The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time. Yaz had played in 25 of San Francisco’s first 27 games while hitting .292 and slugging .521 over 102 plate appearances in April. The pop of his hamstring, his cleats slipping on the slick outfield turf of Estadio Alfredo Harp Helu, was the sound of the bubble bursting. Yaz would return to the field in two weeks but the return to strength or rhythm or good vibes would take much longer, only hitting .200 with a .356 SLG in 52 PA the second half of May.

The hamstring got him again in late-June and walked on eggshells for most of July. With no confidence in his back leg, Yaz was out in front of pitches for weeks. He had an 0-for-20 stretch from July 19th to July 24th, ending that month with a .143/.284/.286 slash line. Then he hurt his hamstring again…so August was another bust.

The outfielder returned to the lineup to be on hand for the September collapse. A decent start to the month ended with a him going hitless in his last 8 games. Far from the miraculous or resurrectionary performance needed to shake the Giants from a team-wide slump, pitching exhaustion, a managerial shake-down, and solemn and solitary clubhouse days full of murmurs and mutterings and vague diagnoses of the malaise that had descended.

Yaz missed a career high 57 days due to injury in 2023, limiting him to his lowest game and plate appearance total of his career. He’ll turn 34 in August, the body showing wear and tear is no surprise. Even with a compromised lower-half, he maintained an above-average ability to hit the ball hard, and I see no reason why that ability would fade anytime soon. He’s held his own against offspeed, posted a 9 Run Value against four-seamers last year, and doesn’t hurt himself with bad swings on bad pitches.

The biggest concern is the slider. Throughout its history, the pitch has been the great leveler, and that’s never been more true for Mike Yastrzemski.

56 of Yaz’s plate appearances in 2023 ended with a slider. Two of them resulted in a hit: a double down the line against Michael Kopech on April 3rd, a single up the middle against Yu Darvish on April 30th, and…that was it. A .041 batting average with 21 punch-outs was all the crumbs the lefty could scrounge. He basically had as much success letting the pitch hit him than he had hitting it. The good thing is that this isn’t completely new: it’s always been Yaz’s kryptonite. Out of the left-hand, the slider is the pull string and Yaz is the top. The pitch starts behind him and ends up a foot beyond the end of his bat in the opposite box. Out of the right hand, the hard break seems to briefly intersect with his swing path while begging to get pounded into the ground. The proof is in the pudding: a -13 Run Value against the hard breaking ball was the worst of his career and one of the worst in baseball and an enticing neon Kick-Me sign slapped onto his back to pitchers in 2024.

Yes, another limitation—but what I like about Mike Yastrzemski is that he understands his limitations. Six years spinning your wheels in the mire of the Baltimore Orioles organization will give you some perspective on life, and I’m sure any dreams of grandeur, of following his grandfather’s 23-year long Hall of Fame career, were quickly downgraded to delusions and trashed in the early-goings. Yaz is a realist, and he’s better for it. His swing isn’t going to win him any batting titles, but he’s embraced its strengths and rarely strays from it. His outfield arm isn’t strong, but its accuracy helps police the base paths. He doesn’t have the greatest reaction time in the field, but he has decent range and can close gaps with efficient routes that makes him ideal in the corners. He’s not a base-stealing threat—too flashy—but his speed and read of the developing play allows him to take the extra base when available.

Yaz can only be Yaz—hopefully the Giants won’t have to ask him to be someone else again in 2024.