Yankees’ Anthony Volpe’s at-bats ‘look dangerous’ in Year 2

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PHOENIX — The day before Anthony Volpe had a career-high four-hit game in a 5-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks, the only thing he was concerned about hitting was the toilet after missing Sunday’s game with an upset stomach. Volpe was spotted in Houston chugging Pedialyte, with saltines and pretzels stationed at his locker.

“Really bad,” Volpe said Monday when asked how he was feeling over the weekend.

Volpe added that he’s still not 100 percent through his illness but should be after “one more good night.” Even with the stomach bug running through him, Volpe delivered the kind of game the New York Yankees organization expected of him since he emerged as a top prospect. He stuck with an outside slider that he shot into the right-field gap for a double; he blasted a 104 mph RBI single right back up the middle; he looped a base hit into center field; and he roped a low-and-inside curveball down the left field line for a double. Volpe also manufactured a Little League run with his speed on a play Arizona committed two errors on, which allowed the Yankees shortstop to score on a sac fly from first base.

But it’s Volpe’s at-bats that have generated the most buzz early in the season. Yankees manager Aaron Boone has said since the team reported to Tampa for spring training that Volpe is a “way better” hitter than what he was last year. Results can be fleeting this time of year given the sample size, but Volpe has controlled the zone better than at any point in his rookie season. In the four games he’s played, Volpe has just three swings-and-misses in the 87 pitches he’s seen.

“His at-bats are just dangerous,” Yankees hitting coach James Rowson said. “They’re tough on opposing pitchers because he’s not giving you anything. He’s forcing you to make pitches for the entire bat which is difficult to do.”

Volpe felt he needed to change his swing path because it wasn’t allowing for much room for error. Last year, Volpe’s bat path would come through the zone and not stay there long to make enough contact. It led to a 27.8 percent strikeout rate and a 28.1 percent whiff rate. Volpe feels the work he’s done this offseason has set him up to cover more types of pitches, different speeds and locations. He’s 8-for-14 with one home run, four walks and just three strikeouts.

The changes to Volpe’s approach were noticeable right away to Yankees captain Aaron Judge when he saw him a few months ago at the team’s spring training complex. When he watched Volpe’s first batting practice and talked with him afterward about the evident swing changes, the first thought that popped into Judge’s head was, ‘Dang, He’s gonna have a great year.’

“The biggest thing in this game is it’s tough to be perfect in this game when you’re facing 99 (mph), off-speed and you’re facing so many different things,” Judge told The Athletic. “If you’re not in the zone for a long time, you got this (small) of a window. When you’re able to lengthen that window you have, so now even if I’m looking for 95 and he throws 97, if my bat path is back, I can still drop the ball to right field. If I’m sitting fastball and I get an off-speed pitch, I can still get some length with my bat to get through it. That’s what we’re seeing now. It’s almost like he’s ready for any pitch and he can cover everything because he’s in the zone early and long through.”

Perhaps a question some observers may have is: Why weren’t these changes made last year when it was obvious Volpe was struggling? Because baseball is an everyday sport that allows for very little practice time once the season begins. Boone said subtle adjustments can be made but “sometimes when you do some overhaul things, that can be really, really difficult within the season.”

When Volpe was struggling early last season and many were wondering if the team would send him down to Triple A, the team’s top decision-makers — Boone, general manager Brian Cashman and owner Hal Steinbrenner stood by their shortstop. He ended last year with 21 home runs and 24 stolen bases but the second-worst on-base percentage for all qualified hitters and a .666 OPS. With a deeper lineup this season and less pressure to produce, the Yankees’ decision to believe in Volpe’s growth looks like the correct call so far.

“We all felt like he was gonna get there,” Boone said. But this is a different guy now.”

(Photo: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)

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