Back in March, Anthony Volpe was the feel-good story dominating Yankees coverage. Now, as the summer starts heating up, so does the pressure on the young shortstop to perform up to expectations.
While Volpe has made highlights this season with his nine home runs and 14 steals in 67 games, his overall performance has not been consistent.
In his first 31 games, he hit .230 with three homers, nine RBIs, and a .706 OPS. Despite those not being eye-popping numbers, he continued to slot into the Yankees lineup every day and even hit leadoff for a brief stretch of time.
However, all of that has changed of late.
Over his next 35 games, Volpe is hitting just .141 with a .524 OPS. His six home runs and 17 RBIs over that stretch simply can’t mask the overall struggles he’s having at the plate.
Among qualified hitters, Volpe has the worst on-base percentage in all of baseball at .260, just behind Javier Baez. He also has the third-worst batting average in baseball, ahead of just Nick Maton and Kyle Schwarber, and even with his home runs, he has the 13th-worst slugging percentage in the league and the 4th-worst wRC+ (weighted runs created plus).
His 77 strikeouts are the most on the Yankees with Aaron Judge coming in second with 63 strikeouts despite having 40 fewer plate appearances.
Any way you shake it right now, Anthony Volpe does not look ready to handle major league pitching, which begs the question of whether he would be better served to head to Triple-A, a level he has actually never played at, and try to iron out his flaws.
It’s a strategy that the St. Louis Cardinals used with top prospect Jordan Walker earlier this season.
Much like Volpe, Walker jumped right from Double-A to the majors. In fact, MLB.com had Walker ranked as the 4th-best prospect in baseball entering spring training, with Volpe right behind him at 5th.
After having an impressive spring training, Walker made the Cardinals and actually put up much better numbers than the Yankees’ shortstop, hitting .274/.321/.397 at the time of his demotion. However, St. Louis saw him struggle through a 5-for-26 stretch with nine strikeouts and decided to have him work on his swing in the minors.
Since coming back up on June 1st, Walker is hitting .290/.371/.516 with two home runs, four RBI, four runs, and just four strikeouts in nine games.
The Arizona Diamondbacks also demoted top pitching prospect Brandon Pfaadt after he struggled in his first five major league starts, as did the Chicago White Sox with their 24-year-old outfielder Oscar Colas after he hit .211/.265/.276 in his first 25 MLB games.
The Yankees could also have a ready-made replacement for Volpe in the short term with their other top shortstop prospect, Oswald Peraza, swinging a hot bat at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Since going back to the minors on May 14, Peraza has hit .321 with 10 home runs, 17 RBIs, and a 1.124 OPS in 19 games.
Could a similar stint in Triple-A help Volpe? After all, remember that coming into spring training most people expected Peraza to win the starting shortstop job with Volpe beginning the year in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Yet, Volpe outplayed Peraza in March, and the Yankees decided Volpe had won the competition for the spot.
Now the question is whether or not that means he has to keep that spot for the whole season. At some point, continuing to struggle like this against major league pitching might do more harm than good for the 22-year-old. A demotion will not be the end of his career but just a chance to reset so that he can still help the Yankees in the future without developing bad habits or tanking his confidence.
Mike Trout famously struggled in his first taste of the majors, hitting .220/.281/.390 in his first 40 games. Alex Rodriguez hit .201/.241/.204 in his first 17 MLB games then got called up again the next season and hit .232/.264/.408 in 48 games.
These things happen, and prospect growth is not linear, but, as of now, the Yankees seem steadfast in their commitment to Volpe at the big league level.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone has said Volpe is “very much equipped to deal with it all and handle it all. And in a lot of ways, and even in his minor-league career, for all the success he’s had, he’s had struggles along the way where that’s all part of the game. Even for great players. It’s part of this deal with the ups and downs that you inevitably face.”
The question is just whether the Yankees are actually helping him through these struggles in the right way.