Why having enough left-handed hitting is crucial in October

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Brian Cashman must feel cursed. For years, the New York Yankees general manager has been on a mission to find balance in his lineup, and just when he thought he had finally captured it, it vanished.

The Yankees have fallen on hard times, and it's in part because of injuries and inconsistent production by left-handed hitters. It's forced New York to revert back to relying on righties to carry the load at a time when seemingly everyone on the roster not named Aaron Judge has slumped.

"Take a look at their numbers since Matt Carpenter left the lineup," one AL scout said. "Yes, Matt Carpenter. If he or Anthony Rizzo or even Andrew Benintendi were right-handed, we wouldn't be having this discussion. These players are key to the Yankees because they're lefties."

The phrase "you can never have enough left-handed pitching" is often heard in MLB front offices, but the concept extends to the batter's box as well. Every July, executives play musical chairs with the limited number of lefties who become available and the teams that have realized they need to add them, mostly with one specific thing in mind: October.

"Those guys have so much value, especially in the playoffs when you're facing so many elite right-handers," one executive said. "You can get to the postseason with different kinds of lineups, but boy, are some lefty hitters needed once you're there."

Recent history agrees: Last year's two World Series participants, the Atlanta Braves and Houston Astros, ranked No.1 and No. 2, respectively, among all 2021 playoff teams in OPS from left-handed hitters. From the right side of the plate, they ranked just sixth and seventh out of 10 teams.

"I wouldn't say that it's a singular focus on left-handed hitting as much as making sure that we have balance throughout the lineup," Astros GM James Click said via an email. "Whether it's in terms of handedness or other skills like speed, power, opposite-field hitting."

That, of course, is easy to say when your team employs left-handed mashers, such as Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker. Cashman's boppers, on the other hand, were born right-handed -- meaning the Yankees have had to actively acquire lefties.

"The Yankees are a team who clearly saw their weakness on offense and addressed it," one former executive said. "Some teams are more aggressive than others. Its just so hard to overcome when you're too heavily balanced on one side or the other. I think the Yankees ... saw that and knew they had to fix it to have a great offense."

They've traded for lefties Rizzo, Joey Gallo, Carpenter and most recently, Benintendi in an effort to fill the void. And for a while this season, it seemed they had finally found that needed lineup balance.

But since Carpenter went down with a wrist injury Aug. 8, the Yankees are second to last in the majors in OPS against right-handed pitching. Rizzo had slumped (.691 OPS, 7 BB, 23 K's) before recently landing on the injured list and is now out with a back issue. Benintendi (.326 OBP) also slowed down before suffering his own wrist injury that will likely end his season.

And Rizzo and Benintendi haven't been the only lefties to struggle. In Carpenter's absence, the Yankees' left-handed hitters have batted .198 compared to .212 before Aug. 8, while righties have hit .221 in the time since Carpenter was injured.

Even if New York manages to hold off the Tampa Bay Rays for the AL East title, their lack of left-handed lineup depth could come back to haunt them in the postseason. One executive pointed out that he would rather be vulnerable against left-handed pitching than against righties, simply because there are fewer left-handed pitchers and it's a lot easier to find a dangerous right-handed hitter, even just to fill part of a platoon.

"Lefties are a commodity," the executive said of batters. "It's as simple as that. Take a look at last October."

The Yankees aren't the only team that suffer from a lack of left-handed hitting -- and it's an issue that has plagued other franchises over the years.

The 2021 Chicago White Sox are a cautionary tale from that postseason about what can happen when a team enters October without this key ingredient. They won their division by 13 games, but then a first-round series against the Astros exposed them. White Sox right-handed hitters batted .295 off righty pitching in the series -- though all of the hits were singles. Meanwhile, their lefties hit .196 with a just .667 OPS in four games. Houston won the series easily in large part because Chicago's lefties weren't good enough.

Chicago's inconsistency has carried over to this season as the White Sox have just 24 home runs from left-handed hitters, ranking 29th in the majors. The only team worse is the Toronto Blue Jays, who have just 15 home runs from lefties.

Both teams are doubling down on their righties to lead them to October after failing to make a deal for one of the plenty of lefties that did change teams at the trade deadline.

"I'm not sure how Toronto expects to win a World Series this year with that kind of production," an NL scout who has watched them said. "You need to be so good in other areas of your game to overcome that."

If they make it to the postseason, the decision to trade for Whit Merrifield instead of finding a left-handed bat means the Blue Jays could be at a disadvantage against the teams who did prioritize lineup balance at the deadline.

Notably, instead of making a splashy move for a middle-of-the-order bat like many expected under new owner Steve Cohen, the Mets opted to strike by adding two hitters early this trade season: left-handed hitters Daniel Vogelbach and Tyler Naquin. Meanwhile, the Braves made an under-the-radar deal for switch-hitting Robbie Grossman and the Rays added veteran lefty David Peralta. And then, of course, there are the Padres, who completely reshaped their lineup by adding Juan Soto and Josh Bell in the biggest blockbuster of the summer.

New York also made left-handed hitting a priority with the acquisitions of Carpenter and Benintendi -- talent the team hoped would help them make a deep postseason run. However, now plagued by injuries, their October is suddenly up in the air. Will the Yankees be able to navigate a postseason without consistent production on both sides of the plate, or will they and this postseason's other right-handed heavy contenders end up going home because of it? We're about to find out.