Can the Yankees Turn Their Season Around?
Can the Yankees Turn Their Season Around?
By Chris O’Connor
July 8, 2021
*All stats, courtesy of Baseball Reference, Fangraphs, and Baseball Savant, are as of 7/5
It is no secret that the 2021 New York Yankees have been a major disappointment. As we pass the halfway point of the season, the Yankees sit at just 42-41. It is no mirage, either. They have a negative run differential, are in fourth place and 10 games back in the AL East, and are 5.5 games out of the second wild card spot.
For a team that was seen as the pretty clear frontrunner to capture the American League pennant in a time in which most of the top teams were expected to reside in the National League, the Yankees have dramatically unperformed expectations.
And perhaps worse, amidst all the middling play, they have been a boring team to watch. Over the past few years, the Yankees have consistently been one of the best teams in the league. Though they would never be mistaken for the 2014-2015 Royals, they have had their fair share of young-ish, athletic players in the mold of Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks, Mike Tauchman, and a few others. This season, the Yankees have looked old, slow, unathletic, and just really shown poor baseball IQ with their baserunning and defensive play. I have heard many people say that this season reminds them of 2016, when an older team reaches the end of its run and a retool (not rebuild) is needed to get younger and more dynamic.
But is it too soon to write off the 2021 Yankees?
How have each aspect of the team performed and what can that tell us about the second half of the season?
In 2017 and 2018, the Yankees ranked 2nd in the league in runs scored. In 2019, they led the league and in 2020, they were fourth. Despite bringing back largely the same cast of hitters, they are next to last among American League teams in runs per game in 2021, surrounded by rebuilding teams like the Orioles, Tigers, and Royals. How does this happen?
First, the good. Once again, the Yankees plate discipline has been their trademark this year. They rank 2nd in the majors in walk rate and have just the 11th highest strikeout rate. Walks and strikeouts generally go hand in hand and the Yankees’ patience at the plate has not led to a huge increase in strikeouts relative to the rest of the league. Sure, they strikeout at a rate above the league average, but not by much: their strikeout rate of 24.5% is only slightly higher than the league average of 23.8%. They generally do not chase pitches: they swing at the fifth-lowest percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone. When combined with a middle-of-the-pack rate of swinging at pitches inside of the strike zone, it is clear that the Yankees do a good job of waiting for their pitches. Sure, they could be more aggressive on swinging at strikes, but they rarely do the pitchers any favors by chasing pitches.
And when they do put the ball in play, the Yankees bats have hammered the ball: they lead the league in hard-hit rate (percentage of balls hit over 95+ mph) and rank fifth in both average exit velocity and barrel rate.
Essentially, the Yankees offense has demonstrated that they are top-tier in both plate discipline and hitting the ball hard. Those are the pillars of good hitting. Why is it then that the offense has not only regressed, but seemingly overnight become one of the worst run-scoring teams in the majors?
There are a few reasons for this. The first and most obvious reason is their baserunning. The Yankees have been by far the worst baserunning team in the sport, and it is really not close. They have the fewest stolen bases in the league with 17 as well as the lowest percentage of extra bases taken (like going first to third or second to home on a single). That’s certainly not good, but for an unathletic team that relies more on power than speed, an unaggressive approach is not the end of the world. That is, as long as they are not making outs on the bases. Well… their 34 outs on the bases leads the league. Their 15 outs at home plate also leads the league. How do they combine the league’s most risk-averse baserunning approach with the most outs run into? They are now tied for last place with the Pittsburgh Pirates in percentage of times a base runner comes around to score at just 26%. According to Fangraphs all-encompassing baserunning metric, the Yankees are easily the worst baserunning team in the majors*. All of this is a major reason why, despite the team ranking ninth in the AL in WRC+, they sit in 14th in the AL in runs per game.
*According to Fangraphs, the biggest culprits have been Gio Urshela, Giancarlo Stanton, Clint Frazier, and Miguel Andujar. Urshela ranks as the worst base runner in the majors, Stanton sixth-worst, Frazier 14th worst, and Andujar 24th worst.
The other problem is two-fold: where they are hitting the ball and when they are doing it. The Yankees have the ninth-highest ground ball rate in the league, but that number rises to third in the league in high leverage situations. That, combined with how hard they hit the ball and how slow they are, is a big reason why they have hit into the second-most double plays in the league. Strikeouts are not the problem in these situations; they actually have the 10th-lowest strikeout rate in high leverage situations. They hit the ball on the ground far too much, particularly in the clutch, and this has really done them in. This was not an entirely surprising occurrence; the Yankees figured to be a poor baserunning, unathletic team.
Much of the reason that they were preseason favorites to win the pennant was their home run prowess. In this aspect, it appears that the de-juiced ball has affected the boppers. From 2017-2020, the Yankees hit 55 more home runs than any other team. This year, they have fallen to 11th in the league in long balls. That’s not all. Their home run to fly ball ratio has fallen from 14.4% in 2019 to 13.1% to 11.6%. That is mostly consistent with the league’s rate dropping, but it has affected the Yankees more than any other team due to their reliance on the long ball to jumpstart their offense. The Yankees can survive with all of the ground balls and baserunning blunders as long as they have the 3-run home run to bail them out. When it doesn’t…. they’ll score runs at the same rate as the Orioles and Tigers.
The Yankees pitching has been solid all year. For these purposes, it is helpful to break it down between starters and relievers. Yankees starters rank 16th in the league with a 4.12 ERA, but the numbers suggest they have been unlucky: their FIP is 3.94 and they rank ninth in the league in SIERRA at 3.90. Similarly, despite allowing the fourth-lowest rate of hard-hit balls in the league, the pitching staff has allowed a BABIP of .292, which is the 11th highest in the league. It seems to happen so frequently to the Yankees pitchers: bloopers landing in front of outfielders or soft ground balls getting through the infield. While it seems like this has happened frequently with the shift, particularly against righties, the Yankees have not shifted at a significant rate relative to league average: they shift against righties at the 15th highest rate and lefties at the 14th highest rate. The best way to avoid these cheapies, of course, is to not allow contact in the first place. Yankees starters do a good job of this: their 25.2% strikeout rate ranks ninth in the league and their 7.1% walk rate is seventh lowest.
There are a few areas for improvement: the starters can give more innings; they are 12th in the league in innings per start; they can give up more ground balls (those this may lead to less strikeouts); they allow the 3rd-fewest ground balls in the league; and a few more quality starts would be nice; their quality start percentage of 34% is just below the 35% league average mark. All in all, Yankees starters on the whole rank 10th in fWAR at 7.5. Entering the season, the Yankees were supposed to win games with their offense and bullpen carrying the load with the starters (behind Gerrit Cole, of course) just doing enough to get by. I would say the starters have met expectations thus far.
Aside from a few high-profile meltdowns, the bullpen has certainly met expectations as well, if not exceeded them. While the bullpen ranks ninth with a 3.59 ERA, they actually lead the league with 4.2 fWAR. The advanced stats love them: they are second in SIERRA, fourth in FIP, and third in xFIP. A big part of the reason for this is that they are excellent in the three areas that pitchers fully control: they miss a lot of bats (seventh in strikeout rate at 26.2%), do not give free passes (sixth-lowest walk rate), and do not give up many homers (ninth-lowest home run rate). A bullpen, however, is primarily judged by their performance in big situations. In this way, the Yankees bullpen has not fared quite as well. Despite their excellent metrics, their 25th place ranking in Fangraphs “Clutch” score has them just 14th overall in win probability added. So, while on the whole the bullpen has been terrific, their timing has not been. Whether this is dumb luck or not, it needs to improve.
With regards to the Yankees defense, I will keep it brief. The Yankees did not project to have a good defense entering the season, one of the major perceived flaws in this team. That has held up, as much as defensive metrics can be relied upon. They rank just 28th in defensive runs saved and 22nd in Outs Above Average. While the infield has not been great, by all accounts, it is their outfield defense that has struggled this year. They rank fourth worst in OAA and 6th worst in defensive runs saved. This is no surprise; the loss of Aaron Hicks has hurt and despite having a world-class outfielder in right field, the Yankees have used guys like Clint Frazier and Miguel Andujar in the corners and 37 year-old Brett Gardner in center. No one really expected the Yankees to be a great defensive team, and it appears that they have held up their end of the bargain.
I still believe in this team. I have watched almost every game thus far and have seen what many have seen: a slow, unathletic, underperforming squad that has often looked flat. The fact that this team is just 75-68 since the start of 2020 is my biggest concern; it suggests that this underperformance is no longer a small sample size and this team might just not be that good.
And my reasons for optimism might not be actually that exciting at second glance: for one, I think the Yankees will be a better base running team moving forward only because I do not see a way that they can be worse. But more to the point, I think this team has played as bad as they possibly can this year. It can not be overstated how crazy it is that a team that was at the top of the league in runs scored for four years running all of a sudden is at the bottom of the league seemingly overnight. This is with virtually all of the same players who are all still in their primes. Despite this, the team sits just 4 games back in the loss column for the second wild card spot.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely think changes have to be made. The Yankees could use another starter (Jose Berrios? Johnathan Gray?) and an outfielder (Starling Marte? Andrew Benintendi?) Injecting some youth like Estevan Florial and/or Hoy Jun Park into the lineup at the expense of retreads like Frazier, Andujar, Gardner, and Rougned Odor can give this team some life, if not better production. There are certainly moves to be made.
Projection systems are still (relatively) optimistic about the Yankees: 538 gives them a 27% chance to make the playoffs, Fangraphs is at 42.5%, and PECOTA is at 63.9%.
Boone can be blamed, Cashman can be blamed, but ultimately I agree with Hal: it is on the players to turn this around. I think that they can. I still believe that this team, with a few tweaks, is capable of going on a second-half run to bring home #28.