How Teixeira Got His Groove Back

Once upon a time, Mark Teixeira was great at baseball. In fact, from 2004 until 2011 he was one of the very best players in the game. Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera are the only two players who created more offensive runs than Teixeira did in that eight-year stretch. Defensively he was nothing short of elite, ranking second in both Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) among first basemen, trailing only Pujols in both categories. All told, Teixeira ranked fifth in all of baseball in WAR in his ages 24 through 31 seasons.

That’s some pretty elite company. Many of those guys will make strong cases for Cooperstown. For eight years, Mark Teixeira belonged with them. Then suddenly he didn’t. 

Teixeira’s game seemingly started declining the moment he entered his thirties. His on-base percentage at age 29 was .383, coincidentally his last great offensive season. In the years that followed, his OBPs read as follows: .365, .341, .332, .313. That omits the .270 mark he posted in 2013, a season in which he missed all but 15 games with an injury to a tendon in his right wrist. His slugging percentage suffered a similar fate, never again topping .500 after exiting his twenties. The rise of defensive shifts began to eat away at his batting average, turning a perennial .300-threat into a guy who struggled to top .250. Teixeira’s elite glove work helped him to a four-win season in 2011, but by the following year he had become just another expensive Yankee who was well past his prime. In 2014 the bottom fell out. In his return from the wrist injury that derailed his 2013, he posted a .216/.313/.398 batting line and saw his strikeout rate surge to a career high. The slugging percentage was the lowest of his career by nearly 80 points. His poor performance combined with continued health woes even led some to question his desire to keep playing the game. With another two years and $45 million still owed to him, the situation looked bleak for the Yankees. Then 2015 happened.

Through the season’s first two months, Teixeira is slashing .243/.362/.579 with 14 homers in 185 plate appearances. Combined with his still-solid defense, he’s already posted 1.2 WAR this year, eclipsing what he did in the entirety of 2014. So how does a 35-year-old suddenly rediscover his stroke after six straight seasons of decline? For Teixeira the answer hasn’t been in changing his swing, but rather in how often he chooses to unleash it.

Walks are good. Strikeouts are bad. These are fundamental truths of baseball. If you walk a lot, you’re on base a lot. If you avoid striking out, then you put the ball in play. Putting the ball in play when you swing is a lot more conducive to success than swinging and missing is. In 2015, Mark Teixeira is walking more and striking out less than he has at any other time in his career. In fact, Teixeira has been one of the best in baseball at combining the two skills.

2008 was the best season of Teixeira’s career by almost any measure you’d care to use…WAR, OPS, wRC+, wOBA, etc. It is also not-so-coincidentally the only season in his career that he walked more than he struck out. Seven years later, Tex is outdoing himself with incredible selectivity. According to Fangraphs plate discipline statistics, Tex is chasing the fewest amount of pitches outside the strike zone (O-Swing%) since…you guessed it, 2008. In addition to that, when he swings at pitches in the zone, he’s making contact over 90% of the time. Avoiding bad pitches and making contact with good ones is a solid approach. So far, Tex is executing that approach brilliantly.

 

On the left is Teixeira’s swing percentages against right-handed pitching from 2007 to 2014. On the right is Tex’s swing percentages against RHP in 2015. This confirms what the O-Swing% tells us. Tex’s ability to lay off pitches outside the strike zone is improved. Check out the low/outside and low/inside areas. In some zones he’s cut his chase rate in half. The only area where he’s consistently still expanding the strike zone is low and over the plate, which is standard procedure for a power-hitting lefty. Still, Tex’s K% and BB% aren’t drastically different from his career norms as a lefty this year, so let’s take a look at what’s he’s doing from the right side of the plate.

 

So here we have it. This is drastic. Tex is laying off almost everything down in the zone against left-handed pitching. He’s like an entirely different hitter in 2015. This extreme patience is the reason Teixeira has walked just as much from the right side of the plate as the left despite nearly 70 fewer plate appearances. And here’s one more heat map to demonstrate just how crazy his season as a right-handed hitter has been.

 

That’s how often Teixeira has whiffed from the right side of the plate this year. Four times. There have been just four pitches that Teixeira has swung and missed at ALL year as a righty. Every one of them has been outside the strike zone, meaning Tex has yet to swing and miss at a ball in the zone this year. He’s walking almost a quarter of the time and striking out at just a 5% rate against lefties. Overall, Teixeira is waiting for pitchers to put the ball where he wants it, and he’s crushing it when they do. He owns a 26.7% home run-to-flyball ratio as a lefty this year. As a righty? 25.6%. In Yankee Stadium? 26.9%. On the road? 25% even. He’s doing his damage from both sides of the plate, home and away.

Now, is Tex going to maintain a walk rate higher than his strikeout rate all year? Probably not. And his HR/FB ratio will almost assuredly regress. But he’s well past the stabilization point for swing rate, so it appears what we’re seeing is a real change in approach, not some small sample size fluke. In addition to that, he’s due for a lot of positive regression in the batting average department, as his .197 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is absurdly low, even for someone as susceptible to the shift as Teixeira is. In fact, it’s a testament to how truly great Teixeira has been that he’s done so much damage with such an unlucky BABIP. 

A lot can go wrong in baseball. A slip back into his less-disciplined ways or another injury could easily derail Teixeira’s renaissance. But for now, he’s found an approach that has him back among the league’s elite.

 

All statistics cited are from Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference and are current as of May 28, 2015. Heat maps are from Brooks Baseball.

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