The Fall of an Empire?
If I told you before the start of the regular season that, on April 25th, the 21st game of the season, that Rougned Odor, who had an 0.167 average in 2020, would be the cleanup hitter for the New York Yankees, you would either think that the entire team had contracted COVID, or send me to an insane asylum. Yet, this was reality for the Yankees’ final game in Cleveland of a 4-game-set.
After starting the season 6-11, the Yankees looked lost, as a shell of their dominant, talent-oozing roster. After opening the season as favorites to come out of the American League, the Bronx Bombers were off to a troublesome start. After starting off 5-5, they lost 6 of their next 7 games, 5 of which were to division rivals. The bats were dormant, the defense was ugly, and nothing seemed to break right. The issues that plagued them over the last 3 years, especially in the playoffs, made themselves ever-present to start the new year. Outside of ace Gerrit Cole, the starting rotation appeared riddled with questions yet again, with starters struggling to pitch deeper into games with effectiveness. A defense, which started Jay Bruce at first base, (even though 0.032% of his previous 13425.2 innings were played at first), struggled mightily with errors, and the defense severely lacked athleticism once again. The lineup, seen as one of the most powerful in baseball, was slumping severely, especially with runners in scoring position. After 17 games, the team was averaging a measly 3.47 runs per game, and their leader in fWAR out of position players was their backup catcher, Kyle Higashioka, with a fWAR of 0.7. Only 4 other position players had a positive WAR, meaning that half of their starting lineup was playing below a replacement-level. Thus, the team was sitting in the basement of not only their division, but the American League. Accompanying the loud and aggressive boos while they were swept at home by the division-rival Rays, were baseballs thrown onto the field by fans. The team had appeared to hit rock-bottom, and seemed almost lifeless, both during and after games.
The Yankees are not new to the notion of slow starts to a season. In 2019, they also started off 6-9. However, this time, there is a completely different tone. In 2019, the team was ravaged with injuries, with their starting third baseman, shortstop, first baseman, and all three starting outfielders placed on IL. This year, their only key injuries are to Luke Voit and Zach Britton, which both happened halfway through spring training. The utter lack of production this season is much more eye-opening, and concerning pertaining to their plans of winning a World Series.
Now, there should not be much doubt that this team will make it to the playoffs. Over the span of 162, talent usually finds a way to prevail. However, once the team reaches the playoffs, big questions remain. After failing to reach the World Series for the past 3 years, with a roster with elite talent, the pressure is on for manager Aaron Boone and GM Brian Cashman. Outside of Gerrit Cole, who is dominating with 50 strikeouts and a 1.71 ERA through 5 starts, major question marks remain. Jordan Montgomery, a southpaw two years removed from Tommy John surgery, looks poised to break out, after strong underlying metrics in 2020. However, as a pitcher who forces a lot of weak contact, his fielding acted as an achilles heel, making his 5.11 ERA appear rather concerning. When he loses one of his pitches, he also loses much of his effectiveness.
The Yankees also went out and acquired two more starting pitchers this offseason, Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon, both of whom are coming off of major injuries. Even though both have looked pretty solid this year, they have struggled to pitch for significant innings, as the two have combined for only one outing of more than 5 innings pitched. Thankfully for them, the Yankees bullpen has been phenomenal, with a plethora of electric and diverse arms. Out of the combination of Chad Green, Aroldis Chapman, Darren O’Day, Jonathan Loaisiga, Justin Wilson, Luis Cessa, and Michael King, these bullpen arms have allowed just 10 runs in a combined 76.1 innings, good for an immaculate 1.18 ERA.
However, what good is run prevention when you can’t score runs? As of April 30th, the Yankees are averaging 3.68 runs per game, almost 2 runs below their 5.39 average from the 2020 season. In their 12 games against the Rays and Blue Jays, the two other playoff teams within their division last year, the Yankees lineup averaged only 3.17 runs a game. Outside of their two catchers, Kyle Higashioka and Gary Sanchez, and Aaron Judge, the lineup has disappointed greatly, with the lowest slugging in baseball, and bottom 10 xBA and xSLG, as of April 25th.
These numbers are almost sure to correct themselves over the course of the regular season, but it is fair to question how they will produce come the postseason. Much of the issues that have plagued them in the past have appeared troublesome to start the year. The home run reliant approach they have taken for the past few years has led to a major slump to start the season, and has also given them trouble in the postseason. In the 2020 ALDS against the Rays, the Yankees scored 24 runs across 5 games, much of which was because of the 4 home runs off of Giancarlo Stanton’s bat. If not counting Stanton, the team had only 14 RBIs in the series. Even with Stanton’s massive effort at the plate, they were unable to win the series, ultimately scoring only 1 run in a win-or-go-home Game 5. In the 2019 ALCS against the Astros, the Yankees also lacked the sufficient run support needed to advance. At the start of this season, these issues are being amplified once again, as even though they have a plethora of star-level bats, they are unable to produce at a consistent level when it counts. Their lineup lacks the lineup diversity that is usually accompanied by championship teams, which was very evident in their Core Four titles.
The starting pitching has been an issue for the past couple of years as well, especially its depth. This year, the aforementioned offseason acquisitions come with their own question marks, but the Yankees also have multiple young arms that could be a part of the postseason puzzle. Montgomery pitched well in the postseason last year, but has struggled a bit this season, especially against the Rays. Domingo German, an 18-win pitcher in 2019, missed all of last season due to suspension, and has struggled limiting runs so far this season in multiple outings. Deivi Garcia flashed at times last year, but is still only 21, with limited MLB and AAA experience. Clarke Schmidt began the season on IL, and Michael King looks more suited for a bullpen role to begin his career, as he’s struggled against facing hitters a second time through the lineup. With a team who has come so close to a World Series birth for the past four years, it is fair to question whether an approach riddled with question marks was the best way to address the starting rotation.
Even in a 60 game season last year, we saw how a bullpen-oriented approach falters down the line. In the World Series, the Rays bullpen seemed to be out of gas, even though they had “...a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 mph.” In 2019, the Yankees also flaunted an exceptional bullpen, with flamethrower Aroldis Chapman leading a diverse cast of arms, including sinkerballer Zack Britton, sidearmer Adam Ottavino, changeup maestro Tommy Kahnle, and Chad Green. Although the bullpen dominated the regular season, with those five combining for a 2.90 ERA, they were again gassed in the postseason, as the lack of starters going deep into games was not sustainable. Adam Ottavino high usage earlier in the season wiped him out, as late in the season and in the postseason, the offseason acquisition was gassed, and management had lost faith in his ability to pitch effectively. Once again, Chapman gave up another huge postseason home run, possibly attributed due to a high usage rate, ending the Yankees season in Game 6 of the ALCS. If the Yankees again display the same pattern of non-dominant starting performances, and an inability to go deep into games, history is doomed to repeat itself.
However, much of their success might still depend on their ability to beat the Rays. They have struggled to win in Tampa for the better part of the last decade, and now the Yanks have also begun to struggle at home against them as well. Over the past two seasons, the Yankees are a combined 5-16 against the Rays, and only 2-6 in Yankee Stadium. If the Yankees were to end up with the best record in the AL, and the reigning AL champion Rays won the wild card game, a probable scenario, it would be difficult to envision the Yankees advancing, unless something changes within the New York clubhouse.
With all of this in mind, it is still only April. Roughly an eighth of games have been played so far, and some games are still being played at near-freezing temperatures. Baseball is not the best sport for cold weather, and many players utilize the first couple dozen games to adjust and find their rhythm. The team may still be finding their identity, although the lack of impactful roster turnover, especially on the offensive side, makes this notion a little less plausible. The same patterns as previous years seem to still emerge, and hopefully the front office can utilize the remaining 137 games to try to build the best possible roster. Hopefully, the veteran pitching additions will continue to ramp up throughout the year, and the young arms supplanting them will continue to improve. The return of former ace Luis Severino, who is due to resume facing live batters sometime mid-May, should help bolster the rotation to a champion-caliber level. Ultimately, the Yankees must find ways to cover up their glaring holes, holes of which have been their achilles heel both in the postseason, and early this season, if they want to raise their 28th banner.