Once upon a time, Brennan Boesch was power hitting left-handed outfielder that the Tigers loved. In 2009, Boesch broke out with 28 home runs and a .275/.318/.510 slash in Double-A Erie. Last week, he was released., and in what was a matter of days, Brian Cashman evoked shock and horror on Yankee fans by signing the 27 year old.
Obviously the Yankees are in rough shape at the moment, but I didn’t quite understand the negative response. Over the last few years, Cashman and the rest of his front office have done a magnificent job of finding low-risk/high-reward players. Boesch fit the mold almost perfectly, a player that had seen success in the minors, and even in Comerica Park, but injuries and presumably bad luck ruined his 2012 season.
When reading opinions on the deal, I saw my fair share of love and hate, but there was an overwhelming push from the negative side. Perhaps it was the amount of playing time he’d receive, or that he’d take up a roster spot, or that he looked like Seth MacFarlane’s stunt double (That would be Brad’s expert analysis), but I didn’t see a better option in the organization. Even at the low $1.5 million cost, which is actually just $500K if he’s sent down, Boesch does have upside.
I’ll be the first to admit that he was awful in 2012, but we can’t get carried away with one year of data. Boesch had just a 77 wRC+ in 2012, but this was after holding a 117 wRC+ in 2011. In comparison, Curtis Granderson had a 116 wRC+ in 2012. Assume for a second that Boesch repeats 2011 with the Yankees, wRC+ is saying that he’ll have a similar offensive impact as Granderson did in 2012. That doesn’t mean he’ll hit 43 home runs, but with a weighted statistic, we can better see the stadium difference for a left-hander moving from Comerica to Yankee Stadium. On a scale where 100 is average, over the last three years, Statcorner has graded Comerica a 93 home run rate for lefties, and Yankee Stadium a 143. Granderson is the obvious example of moving from Detroit to the Bronx, and his power has skyrocketed.
There’s no doubt it’s easier for a left-handed hitter with power to hit in Yankee Stadium, but what’s to say Boesch’s 2011 wasn’t an anomaly? At the end of the 2011 season, Boesch underwent thumb surgery to correct a partially torn ligament. Although it supposedly healed by opening day of 2012, the outfielder has admitted that he picked up on bad habits while trying to protect his thumb. In his 503 plate appearances in 2012, he hit just .240/.286/.372. From 2011 to 2012, his walk rates decreased, his home runs decreased, his strike out rates increased, and his BABIP fell.
For an older player, this could be a sign of age-related regression, or for a young player with a smaller window of success, a failure to adjust. For a player like Boesch, who crushed the ball in Double-A, and Triple-A, and then in the Major Leagues, something looks fishy. When you start digging into his batted ball rates, some trends stand out. From 2011 to 2012, his line drive rate fell rather significantly from 18.2% to 16.0%, while his fly ball rates also dropped. His ground ball rates shot up from 42.9% to 49.7%, a very strange evolution for a young power hitter. On top of this, his batting average on ground balls fell from .282 to .240, and the batting average on line drives fell from .774 to .610.
Since we’re working with such limited data, it’s hard to tell which season is the real Brennan Boesch. When you compare his ridiculously low batted ball rates and batting averages to his earlier Minor League/Major League success, his 2012 season looks like a major outlier. Looking at especially his line drive, his drop to a 16.0% rate and .610 average is so far below the Major League average, that you know something has changed since the last time he struggled so so harshly in 2008. You could blame some of this on bad luck, but considering the severity of the thumb injury, and his own admittance to changing his approach at the plate, Boesch is more likely ailing from bad habits.
With some bad luck thrown into the mix, it looks like he had a nightmare of a season that the Tigers grew tired of. Kevin Long and Boesch now have to figure out how to overcome the lingering effects of his thumb injury. On what’s essentially a $500K gamble, the Yankees could find themselves with 20+ home run bat that hits for a little average and takes a decent amount of walks. The luck will correct itself, but obviously the Yankees and Boesch have to concentrate on fixing his swing. Long has a history of this, and I’m very excited to see what steps they take over the next couple of weeks. He’s a project at this point, but a project with loads of upside and little risk. Perhaps he’s not the answer we were looking for, but this looks like the same old buy-low move the organization has thrived on in recent years.