A Look at Where the Yankees Stand 30 Games Into 2021
By Chris O’Connor
May 7, 2021
Editor’s Note – This piece was penned before the Astros game yesterday…
As things currently stand, the New York Yankees are 16-14. They are tied for second place in the AL East and 1.5 games back of the first-place Boston Red Sox. While the team struggled out of the gate, losing 10 of their first 15 games, they have won 11 of 15 to climb over .500. While many in baseball use Memorial Day as the first real barometer of what statistics and standings are meaningful, I wanted to take a look at where exactly the Yankees are and what might be expected of them moving forward. 30 games is a good place for an early season check. The season is now 18.5% completed.
With the slow start, the Yankees currently rank tied for 20th in runs per game with 4.10. There are, however, many reasons that this will improve over the course of the season. After hitting 38 homers in 2019, Gleyber Torres hit 3 home runs last year and has none so far this year.. While that is concerning, a player as talented as he is is just too good to stay down for long. Not only did he have a terrific postseason last year, but he is currently posting career bests in strikeout rate and walk rate.
Next, with long(ish) track records of success in the big leagues, guys like Aaron Hicks and Clint Frazier cannot possibly continue to be as bad as they have been even if they do not hit their preseason projections. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have posted WRC+ of 153 and 168, in line with their career averages, and guys like DJ LeMahieu and Gio Urshela have been more good than great thus far.
In sum, nobody is really outperforming their career norms thus far and simple regression to the mean (or in the cast of these players, a progression to the mean) would bring a big boost to the offense. As a whole, the team sits in 8th place in WRC+ at 104. I fully expect that to get into the top five as a floor for them moving forward.
The Yankees have been very unlucky thus far: they have the third highest hard-hit rate at 42.9% yet the fourth lowest BABIP at .261. Much of the reason for their overall struggles scoring runs is due to this as well as their situational hitting: as Neil Paine of 538 noted, the Yankees are last in the league in percentage of productive outs and third-worst in advancing a runner from second base with no outs or getting the runner home from third with less than 2 outs. According to Fangraphs, they also have posted the league’s fourth-worst performance in clutch situations. This is concerning because these are problems that have plagued the Yankees for years, but it is not too late to turn it around with the talent in the lineup.
Their plate discipline has been stellar: I am sure fans would believe that the team has posted the highest walk rate in the league and the second lowest chase rate, but would they believe that the team has, at 23%, the eighth lowest strikeout rate? The Yankees get criticized often for their strikeout-or-bust, but here’s the thing about baseball in 2021: everyone is striking out a ton. The bats are already starting to come out of their slump: since falling to 5-10 on April 21, the team leads the league in WRC+, walk rate, and home runs. They have even been better in the clutch during that stretch, though jumping up to 20th is hardly cause for celebration. It appears that the team’s bats have really turned a corner and with 2020 home run leader Luke Voit set to return soon, the Yankees bats may be very dangerous over the rest of the season.
The Yankees pitching staff as a whole has been nothing short of terrific: they lead the American League with a 3.01 ERA with the next closest team (White Sox) at 3.36.. Let’s start with the starters. It would be more helpful to look at individuals rather than team ranks because Gerrit Cole has been so good that he skews the data. Cole leads all pitchers in fWAR, is second in strikeout rate, and is third in both ERA and walk rate. His advanced metrics look even better and he is the early favorite for AL Cy Young. Aside from Cole, the starters have been a mixed bag. Corey Kluber had a very rough start to the year, struggling to give the team length and posting a 10.9% walk rate that is far and away a career high. He has, however, settled in recently, allowing just one run in 14 ⅔ innings over his last two starts. Kluber has historically been a slow starter and has barely pitched since 2018, so while these past two starts are encouraging, his 3.03 ERA hides ugly peripherals and I expect him to be up-and-down moving forward as he shakes off the rust. Hopefully, he continues to improve as he settles into a routine and is peaking as we get into October.
Jameson Taillon, meanwhile, has had pretty much the opposite problem: his ugly 5.24 ERA masks solid peripherals. Entering the year, his career high strikeout rate was 22.8% in 2018; this year it is 30.5% with a walk rate that is lower than his career average. His spin rates are way up in his four-seam fastball and slider, another positive sign. The problem is that he is allowing home runs at nearly double his career average. Since home run-flyball ratio is something that has historically been out of a pitcher’s control, it stands to reason that this is more fluky than anything. Thus, his expected ERA, FIP, and SIERRA are all in the 2.90-3.20 range. Like Kluber, I expect some up and down outings as he shakes off rust, but if his advanced metrics are any indication, he should be much better than his raw output moving forward.
Domingo German and Jordan Montgomery have been… fine. They have ERA’s of 4.32 and 4.41 and the peripherals to support that. As number 3 and 4 starters, this is solid if unspectacular work. Both have good raw stuff but struggle to put it together consistently. Of the two, I trust Monty more in a playoff series; I like his cool demeanor as he never seems to get rattled. While I would not expect either to be front-of-the-line guys, both can be solid innings-eaters with the potential for more if they can put it together more consistently
It is difficult to overstate how good the bullpen has been. They are first in both strikeout rate and ERA with the league’s third lowest walk rate. Aroldis Chapman has been the best reliever in the sport, his new splitter being a devastating addition to his unrivaled arsenal. Chad Green has been his excellent self and guys like Luis Cessa, Darren O’Day (currently on the IL with a shoulder injury), and Lucas Luetge have been solid so far. The real surprise, however, has been the emergence of Jonathan Loaisiga. He has an ERA of 0.98 in 18.1 innings with both the peripherals and stuff to match it. He has become an integral part of the best bullpen in the league, and when Zach Britton comes back, look out. The Yankees have more than withstood the losses of Tommy Kanhle and Adam Ottavino. How nice does a back-end bullpen of-Loaisiga-Green-Britton-Chapman sound, with Darren O’Day, Justin Wilson, and others to provide depth?
The Defense and Baserunning
This is the clear and obvious weak point of the team, but Cashman and co. are betting that the rest of the roster is good enough to cover for the flaws here. Fangraphs defensive score and Ultimate Zone Rating pegs the Yankees as the 24th and 22nd ranked team in the league while the Yankees have the 20th most defensive runs saved as a team. While defensive stats are always tricky, especially this early in the season, the consensus seems to be that the Yankees are a slightly below-average defensive team, despite ranking 8th in fielding percentage with few errors made. Overall, I think if you gave Brian Cashman some truth serum, he would admit that the Yankees are not a good defensive team, nor were they supposed to be. What is surprising, however, is the Yankees performance on the basepaths. Everybody knows that the Yankees are not a small ball team; they rank second to last in stolen bases. While baserunning was never supposed to be a strength, the Yankees have been truly awful in this aspect of the game. They lead the league in outs made on the bases and have the lowest extra base-taken percentage in the league. Fanrgaphs all-encompassing base running metrics ranks the Yankees as the worst baserunning team in the majors. While this is concerning, moving forward I am not too worried about it only because the team has been so bad on the bases that it is almost impossible to do worse. The team seems to know that this is a major weakness and while I would not expect more stolen bases or aggressive baserunning, I expect less of the bone-headed mistakes that plagued the team during the slow start.
Look to the Future
While the Yankees 16-14 start is disappointing when considering preseason expectations, the team has shown signs of fight since opening the season in a 5-10 slump. The Yankees Pythagorrean record, based on their run differential, is 17-12, as is their BaseRuns record (based on hits vs. hits allowed). A big part of the reason that they have underperformed their expected record is a 1-4 record in one run games, and with a bullpen as good as theirs, that should change moving forward. Similarly, while their performance in the clutch has been lackluster, getting more optimal sequential hitting (as the team has had recently) can go a long way in evening out the unlucky start 2021. Overall, this is a team that many expected coming into the year: with Cole carrying the pitching staff, a top-tier bullpen, and explosive bats, the Yankees are once again betting that their strengths can cover for their poor defense and baserunning.