I have slept on it for the past week, contemplating my thoughts on the 2021 New York Yankees. For the first season ever in this era of Yankee baseball, there are zero excuses or pontification for the way their season ended other than a failure. While the teams he mentioned were wrong, manager Aaron Boone is correct when he says the league has caught up to them. The Yankees, who were projected as the best team in the American League and World Series favorites to start the 2021 season, are going in the wrong direction.
Granted, no one — not even Yankee fans themselves — is going to feel bad for the Yankees. The Yankees are in their second-longest World Series drought ever (12 years) while Mariners fans are waiting for their first chance to get to their first World Series ever in 20 years. Most teams would pray to have a 92-70 season and have that one-game wild-card experience. Among the four major sports, baseball is likely the hardest to ever give a team “World Series or bust” aspirations. But looking at the team this organization started with at the beginning of the season, being the clear-cut favorite to represent the AL in the Fall Classic, compared to the team that played in the wild card game last Tuesday, this is the only season in the last decade that Yankee fans have the right to be truly angry about.
How Did We Get to This Point?
Let’s recap: 2017 was a young team, one that was projected to go 79-83 in the preseason according to Fangraphs, but rode a great bullpen, a good rotation, unexpected Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks breakout seasons, and Gary Sanchez’s best season to date, to Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. The Yankees added NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton in 2018 and enjoyed the exclusive season of success from Miguel Andújar, but it just so happened to be the same year as the Red Sox random decision to play historical baseball. Even after putting 29 different players on the IL in 2019, the Yankees found themselves at the top of the division for the first time since 2012 and right back to the ALCS, once again losing to a tremendously talented Astros team, extracurricular band practice or not. Heading into the 2020 season, both the original edition and the 60-game schedule, the expectations of a World Series team remained true.
That’s why it’s hard to comprehend why, since August 17, 2020, when they beat the Red Sox 6-3 to move to 16-6, everything has gone backward. Since that victory against their bitter rivals, the New York Yankees have been ultra streaky or otherwise mediocre. The Yankees have primarily relied on a 10-game winning streak in 2020 and two ridiculous streaks in 2021 to even get to the dance in the last two seasons. They have had six different winning streaks of seven games or more since the start of 2020, where all but one have been followed by similarly awful baseball. Before acquiring Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo, the 2021 team was 53-48, well out of first place and out of the postseason picture. They’ve gone from underperforming their Pythagorean record by a lot in 2017 to overperforming their Pythagorean record in 2021.
Meanwhile, an offense that was expected to be one of the best in baseball for a fifth straight year, was the best in baseball when it randomly decided it wanted to be. Ranked in the top two in runs per game and wOBA in each of the last four years, it ranked 10th and 11th in those categories, respectively. In the wild card game, just four hitters — Rizzo, Judge, Stanton, and Gallo — had a wRC+ above 100, defined as league average, during the season.
Long story short: by the end of the season, even if the Yankees had a better result than losing 6-2 to their bitter rivals in the Wild Card Game, there was almost no hope against the Rays in the ALDS. Looking forward, if the Yankees continue down this path, assuming Tampa Bay continues to Rays it up and the Red Sox and Blue Jays continue to build, the Yankees could very well be the fourth-best team in a loaded division by the start of the 2022 season. That’s not good. And if the Orioles’ Astros or Cubs-like breakout season after four years of perpetual failure comes sooner than expected, the Bronx Bombers could be bombing their way to dead last in the division. That’s likely not happening, but it’s a nightmare and a pipe dream for most.
No, it’s Not Necessarily Sabermetrics as a Whole
How do we stop these dreams and nightmares from happening? Many will point the finger at Boone and/or the Yankees’ analytic and sabermetric staff, criticizing the exit velocity and launch angle era, either saying that they need to go or be less of a factor in baseball decisions. Those people in the same breath will point to Joey Gallo, who admittedly did not have a good start to his Yankee career at all. Almost everyone will point to Gary Sanchez after a fourth straight disappointing year and want him out of pinstripes for…well, the fourth consecutive year.
None of these are necessarily the answer. Whether any of us like it or not, analytical sabermetric baseball — the Statcast era, if you will — is here to stay. Of the last ten unique teams — or since 2017 — to make its league’s respective championship series, only the Cardinals and Nationals could be considered well behind the curve in the Statcast era. Of the five unique teams to make the World Series in the same period? Just the Nationals. Meanwhile, three of the other four teams (Astros, Dodgers, Rays) are the bonafide leaders of sabermetric baseball, while the Red Sox grew their analytics department while playing Dombrowski ball. All eight teams remaining in the 2021 postseason, including the stunning 108 win Giants and the White Sox (pretend Tony La Russa doesn’t exist), are considered analytics-heavy.
By the way, that doesn’t account for the Athletics, the Tigers’ fast rebuild, the post-Clint Hurdle Pirates, or whatever revamping Steve Cohen does with the Mets. And for the 4,934th time, every single batted ball in major league history has been hit at a certain speed (exit velocity) at a certain angle (launch angle), so that’s not even remotely close to an issue.
No matter what, the Yankees aren’t getting rid of the advanced numbers because the sabermetrics work. So what if I told you the problem wasn’t analytics or launch angle or Joey Gallo…it was the way the Yankees used analytics. The biggest difference between the Yankees and the sabermetric baseball leaders is that the Yankees have an analytical staff, but don’t have the roster, nor the personnel to do it. And I don’t need to look any further than the 2021 New York Yankees to prove this.
What’s Wrong with the Yankees?
The Yankees led all teams this year with a 10.2 walk percentage, which is fantastic. They were also tied for seventh with 222 home runs and tied for fifth with a 15.5 percent HR/FB ratio. That’s fantastic. What isn’t fantastic is every other offensive tool on the Yankee roster.
Among the Yankees optimal lineup, just Gallo and Aaron Judge rank as above average runners (27 ft/s or more), and only Gleyber Torres (27 ft/s) and Aaron Hicks (26.9 ft/s) grade around average. Seven of the remaining eight Yankees with above-average speed — Clint Frazier, Miguel Andújar, Greg Allen, Estevan Florial, Andrew Velasquez, Tyler Wade, and Tim Locastro — were either emergency call-ups, fell out of the Yankees plans, no longer with the Yankees, or otherwise injured. Every other Yankee player is a below-average runner, with seven ranking in the bottom 100 in sprint speed among players with 10 or more opportunities. Meanwhile, the Rays and Dodgers have plenty of impact players with good to excellent speed.
That’s not the only place where the Yankees get lapped by the rest of the analytic teams. The Yankees -15.1 BsR was tied for the second-worst in baseball. The Rays and Dodgers were both in the top six. The Yankees had the 12th highest ground ball percentage (43.4%); combined with the team’s low speed and bad baserunning, that led to the second most double plays (154) and the third-lowest infield hit percentage (5.8%). The Rays, with a ground ball percentage just 0.8% lower than the Yankees, were the best at avoiding double plays and the best at getting infield hits, while the slower Astros, Giants, and Dodgers avoided hitting the ball on the ground at a higher rate. Need some counting stats for your liking? There were 50 outs on the basepaths for the Yankees, and the 22 outs at the plate tied the Royals for the lead in baseball.
Defensively? They ranked near the bottom in both DRS (-43) and Defensive Value (-12.8). The only player with above-average defense according to Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average was Rougned Odor (9) — albeit Gallo and Anthony Rizzo rated well with the Rangers and Cubs, respectively, and Judge rated much better according to UZR and DRS. Nine Yankees had negative OAA, including a combined -14 OAA from Torres and Gio Urshela in the left side of the infield. Other than the on and off defense from Didi Gregorius, the Yankees have never had a good defensive shortstop on this side of the millennium (Fun fact: Derek Jeter’s original heir apparent, Eduardo Nunez, had -27 DRS in 608.1 innings in 2013). Yes, Kyle Higashioka was the 11th best framer according to FRM, but that was about the only thing he could do behind the plate. Someone is finally doing well at a position they’re comfortable at or already struggling at their best position? Let’s attempt (and almost always fail) to turn him into Ben Zobrist because it can’t get any worse right!
Furthermore, while the pitching staff rated out well as a whole (likely a Matt Blake masterclass), it is damning that Garrett Whitlock is a Red Sox and not a Yankee because of Nick Nelson and Brooks Kriske. And if you needed some eye test in your life to prove this, there was an abundance of times where fundamental baseball did not exist in the Bronx.
It’s Time for a Change: Here’s Why
We can conclude that the problem with the New York Yankees right now is that whatever analytics they have do not work. Its analytical staff tries so hard to be the Rays, Astros, Giants and Dodgers, but don’t have the people, nor the facilities, to be those teams.
Analytics wouldn’t allow you to have 65-year-old Larry Rothschild lead any sort of pitching staff. They don’t allow you to hold every single prospect and young player that exists in the organization until they play themselves into a non-asset. They don’t tell you to take an already defensively challenged, slow and unathletic catcher and neuter everything else — including his arm — by putting him on one knee with zero improvements. They don’t allow you to use your top pitching prospect — the best hope other than Severino to have a legitimate homegrown pitcher — as a one-inning opener in Game 2 of the ALDS just to replace him with J.A. Happ.
They certainly don’t tell you to continuously bring back Brett Gardner — not a legendary player at the backend of his career, Brett Gardner — as a bench player, only for him to still get a large number of at-bats at the end of the season. Analytics doesn’t allow you to hit Gardner, Gregorius, Odor, and/or Mike Ford, among others, third in the batting order. If you want to go back a few years, they certainly don’t say that a team built around Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner, and Lyle Overbay is a postseason team, and they most certainly don’t tell you to pay Jacoby Ellsbury $153 million.
What do analytics and sabermetrics allow you to do? They allow you to trade the second-best player in baseball and make the postseason a year later (that wasn’t an endorsement of the Mookie Betts trade). How about turning Sonny Gray and James Paxton into the excellent starters that everyone knows they are? Maybe it helps you find underrated bullpen arms instead of having to pay for “elite” arms every other year. What about relieving you of the pressure of dominating every single trade in the headlines? Or maybe finding the next Justin Turner, Max Muncy, who have both turned into mainstream stars in attempts to revive their careers or players that have more impact on the team. Aside from Aaron Hicks, Luke Voit, and Clay Holmes, the Yankees have never found much success in that department.
The Next Steps for the Yankees
What am I trying to say? Firing Brian Cashman or manager Aaron Boone and rehauling the coaching staff or signing one of the shortstops to the team’s fourth massive deal isn’t going to do much. Reverting back to its 2009 ways of irrational spending is certainly what the fanbase wants and expects from the second most valuable franchise in sports, but that will only work for a short period in this era of baseball, as we have seen with the Nationals.
The best course of action towards success for this Yankees team before the start of the offseason is allocating their focus into the analytical staff before anything else. Replace the offensive heavy, buy pitching at all costs approach with a team that values defense (especially at the shortstop position) and athleticism. Realize that not every single hitter on the team has to wait for the perfect pitch or a walk. Pride in getting more lift on the ball to make up for the lack of speed like the Giants (the Yankees’ 12.5 launch angle ranked 17th compared to the 13.4 figure in 2019). Getting the right people in the system that can develop a “stable of guys that throw 98”.
Maybe that means getting a proven head honcho to lead a brand new group, whether it’s another aide to Cashman or, in a wild and unforeseen scenario, as a brand new general manager (Cashman is also the current Senior Vice President and is unlikely to leave the organization). Remember, folks like Chaim Bloom, Andrew Friedman, Farhan Zaidi, David Sterns, Mike Elias, and Jed Hoyer have been poached from the Rays, Athletics, Astros, Dodgers and, in the case of Hoyer, the Epstein-led Red Sox. The Yankees, because of Cashman’s status in the organization, have never hired someone of that stature and the best person to leave the team and become a general manager under his tutelage was Billy Eppler (and likely to be usurped by Kim Ng).
From there, you can figure out what is the best way to move forward. Is Aaron Boone the right manager? Who in the world is playing center field every day that’s NOT Gardner? Can potential offensive prowess be sacrificed for a Nick Ahmed-type player at the shortstop position? Do they need to go out and sign the big-name shortstop or can they wait until Oswaldo Peraza and Anthony Volpe are ready? Do they attempt to trade for one of the two defensive catching gods in Arlington or can they turn one of their farm heads into a good catcher like Jose Molina and the Angels are attempting to do with Matt Thaiss?
There are so many questions that can be answered, but they all lead up to one important one: Can it be done within this Yankee team or is it time to re-tool? I don’t know the answer to that, and I am positive that the current group in New York can’t answer that either. It’s about time to get a group that can answer it.
(Oh, and cut the no-hair/facial hair policy expeditiously please.)
Follow Payton Ellison on Twitter (@realpmelli14). He’s tired of watching botched double plays and doubles in the gap not score runs.