Diagnosing the Problem
by Lincoln Mitchell
October 11, 2021
This was a tough season for me-not because the Yankees were disappointing but because they were disappointing in such obvious and avoidable ways. This was not a team that got knocked out of the playoffs early because of a few bad breaks. This was a bad team that only managed to secure the final playoff spot because a far superior Toronto Blue Jays team were the ones who got the bad breaks.
At first glance, the question of what went wrong with the Yankees in 2021 is not a tough one-they didn’t score enough runs, but that is only a surface issue. The Ur problem facing the Yankees is that the Hal Steinbrenner-Brian Cashman leadership team has been wildly unable to adapt to the way baseball is played, and baseball teams are constructed, today. In other words, the Yankees are playing checkers, while most of the better teams are playing chess and the best teams, like the Dodger, Giants and Rays are playing go. No amount of money can make up for that.
The Yankees season had some bright spots, The pitching was quite good, as the Yankees allowed the 10th fewest runs scored in all of baseball and the 4th fewest in the AL. The Yankees were sixth overall in ERA, but their unimpressive defense contributed to their slightly lower rank in runs scored. The problem was that despite the pre-season hype about the Yankees offense, the Yankees were 19th overall and tenth in the American League in run scored. The anemic Yankees offense was due not to the absence of top level offensive talent. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton both turned in sterling seasons that would have fit in nicely in the middle of the order of a championship team. However, other than those two players, the Yankees had very few players who were even average big league hitters.
OPS+ is a good heuristic to help understand this. An OPS+ of 100 is league average. The best teams don’t give a lot of at bats to players who are below average at the plate. For example, the teams with the three best records, the Giants, Dodgers and Rays only sent players with an OPS+ of below 100 to the plate 19.2%, 27.6% and 17.7% of the time. Plate appearances by pitchers are not included in this indicator. The Yankees saw fully 71.1% of their plate appearances go to players with sub-100 OPS+. This speaks not only to the Yankees poor offense, but also to their utter lack of depth which made them very dependent on Judge and Stanton to create runs.
Another way think of this is that Tampa had 12 players with at least 100 plate appearances and an OPS+ of 100. That is an indicator of the depth of Tampa’s offense. The Dodgers had 10 such players and the Giants fully 13. However, only four Yankees, Judge, Stanton, Anthony Rizzo and Luke Voit, managed to meet this basic threshold of being an above big league hitter over the course of a season, or in the case of players like Rizzo, during their time with the Yankees in 2021.
Astute Yankees fans can point to the unexpected, by some, poor seasons by DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres as one of the reasons for this. This is an example of the myopia that makes it
hard for the Yankees to understand the problem. Many teams had off years from star players. Most Dodgers fans were shocked by how poorly Cody Bellinger who had an OPS+ of 45 performed this year. The Yankees kept giving plate appearances to players who were not hitting while the teams like the Giants and Rays found ways to consistently find ways for players to get the most out of their skills. Thus, the poor seasons by Torres, LeMahieu, Urshela and others are evidence of the problem.
That last sentence requires some explaining, so I will try to do that. Teams that understand how to win in the third decade of the twenty-first century do several things well:
1) Teach and coach during the season-By doing this, teams ensure that slumps do not last too long and that even veterans can improve in the later years of their career. There is no better example of this than the Giants’ star shortstop Brandon Crawford who reworked his swing at age 34 and came through with the best season of his career. The Yankees have been unable to do anything this. Slumps by LeMahieu, Torres, Sanchez, Clint Frazier and Miguel Andujar went on way too long and were never addressed during the season. The downturn in LeMahieu’s production may have been due to the less lively ball used this year, but that is precisely kind of exogenous issue to which good coaching can respond.
2) Develop young talent-Aaron Judge is an elite talent who as produced by the Yankees farm system, but Sanchez, Torres, Frazier and Andujar were either highly touted prospects or demonstrated the ability to hit at the big league level at a young age. None were productive hitters for the Yankees in 2021. Yankees prospect Anthony Volpe was recently ranked the top hitting prospect in the game, but unless the Yankees get better at turning prospects into talent, he may be better off in another organization.
3) Identify low cost role players who can contribute-Good teams don’t give outs away by having backup catchers and infielders who cannot hit. The Yankees got no production out of backup catcher Kyle Higashioka who slashed .181/.246/.389 in 211 plate appearances. Andrew Velazquez, who briefly became a fan favorite because of his Bronx roots, hit a dismal.224/.235/.358 in 68 plate appearances. Tyler Wade turned in much more respectable .268/.354/.323. However, the rest of the bench was devoid of any real offensive weapons other than Luke Voit when he was healthy enough to play. Finding backup catchers and infielders who can hit even league average is tough but baseball’s three best teams were able to find do that with players like like Francisco Mejia, Matt Beaty, Chris Taylor, Jordan Luplow, Wilmer Flores and former Yankee Thairo Estrada. Moreover, good teams find players like LaMont Wade Jr., Chris Taylor or Ji-Man Choi who are ever going to be stars, but who can contribute if used the right way.
4) Cut ties with bad players-The Yankees had some truly terrible performers this year. Clint Frazier got more than 200 plate appearances, but had an absolutely terrible year with the bat, hitting .186/.317/.317. Jay Bruce started the season as the Yankees first baseman and hit only slightly better than most pitchers. Bruce only lasted ten games, but the Yankees should have figured out he was done before the season started. Miguel Andujar and Mike Ford were also given a lot of opportunities despite their inability to hit this year.
Individually all of these problems are excusable. LeMahieu was an MVP candidate in 2020 who stopped hitting this year and may have been hurt, but the Yankees kept putting him in the lineup and were totally unsuccessful in either fixing what he was doing wrong or getting him healthy. Sanchez and Torres were once top prospects, but the Yankees sat by and watched them regress. The team tried a lot of role players, but failed to build a decent bench.
None of this is easy, but if the Yankees want to compete with the best teams, they need to modernize. Players like LaMont Wade Jr. and Thairo Estrada on the Giants could have been acquired, or in the case of Estrada, kept by the Yankees for next to nothing. Things like fixing or replacing Frazier earlier and recognizing in March that Jay Bruce was done would have as made a difference as well.
The Yankees seem completely incapable of doing this. They have some real strengths. Judge, Stanton and Jordan Montgomery, Gerrit Cole all had very strong seasons, but the second tier talent was a huge problem. The good news is that the Yankees do not need to add a big star. Rather, they just need to find 4-6 role players who, when used properly, can contribute with the bat, and to become more aggressive and competent in their efforts to get very talented players like Torres and Sanchez back on track. The bad news is the current Yankees leadership has given no indication they know how to do this.