Key Takeaways from the Early Season
Key Takeaways from the Early Season
By Chris O’Connor
April 16, 2021
The 2021 MLB season is now 12 games for the Yankees and the rest of the AL East with the Red Sox at 9-3 holding a four-game lead over the last-place Yankees. Now, it is obviously very early in the season. Through 12 games last year, names like Kyle Lewis, Jacoby Jones, and Miguel Rojas populated the top of the Fangraphs WAR leaderboard. However, there are some telling statistics that may not be too early to judge. I wanted to take a look at some trends in the Yankees statistics that may be promising or worrisome for the rest of the 2021 season.
Promising: Gary Sanchez’s plate discipline
This is a pivotal year for Gary Sanchez and he is off to a great start. He has slashed .265/.375/.471 with 2 homers and a terrific 140 WRC+, meaning his bat has been 40% better than league average. However, something I have noticed is his improved plate discipline. His walk rate is up slightly from last year, but his strikeout rate has dropped from 36% in 2020 to 17.5% thus far in 2021 with just 7 strikeouts in 10 games. Similarly, his swing rate on pitches outside of the strike zone has dropped from 31.5% to 22.3% and his swing rate on pitches inside the strike zone has increased from 62% to 70.1%. So, Sanchez is swinging more at balls in the strike zone and less at balls outside of the strike zone. Swing rates are among the first statistics to stabilize in a season, so while I do not anticipate these huge gains sustaining to this degree, I can absolutely buy Sanchez’s discipline improving in 2021. While a streaky hitter like Sanchez is never going to have the plate discipline of a Mike Trout, a more selective approach could do wonders for his overall batting line.
Worrying: Gleyber Torres’ defense
As I discussed during the offseason, a major storyline to watch for this season is Gleyber Torres’ performance at the shortstop position. Thus far, it has not been great. He already has two throwing errors on the season, one of which allowed the go-ahead run to score in the 10th inning of the series finale against the Orioles. In my personal opinion, he just does not look like has the range of even an average shortstop. I have seen many balls hit this year that have been just out of his reach, but his range has long been a problem. This has been backed up the advanced stats over the past few years, with Torres routine ranking among the worst shortstops in several advanced metrics. Now, fielding metrics are fickle in nature and not always the most reliable, and that goes double for such a small sample size in 2021. But Torres had existing concerns about his defense heading into the season and the metrics are in agreement that his performance has been close to league-worst thus far. He ranks tied for 22nd among 27 qualified shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved and tied for 31st among 34 shortstops in Outs Above Average. With the eye test, traditional stats (like errors), and advanced metrics all in agreement that his defense needs to improve, it is hard not to look to the crop of free agent shortstops this coming offseason. Torres is most likely never going to be a plus defender at shortstop, so it makes it that much more important that his bat comes through for him to be a really valuable player. He has not hit well dating back to the start of 2020, which just 3 home runs since then. While I am not too worried about his bat at the moment, that could change if his prolonged power drought sustains.
Promising: Bullpen depth
While the bats have yet to truly get going, the pitching has been better. Gerrit Cole has been as advertised and Jameson Taillon and Jordan Montgomery have looked pretty good. I think those two (along with Corey Kluber and Domingo German) will only improve as they get used to pitching every 5 days again. Remember, Taillon and Kulber have hardly pitched since 2018 and German did not pitch at all in 2020; they need some time to build themselves back, so while I am not entirely encouraged by what I have seen thus far, I want to give it time. The bullpen, meanwhile, has been fantastic. Chad Green, Luis Cessa, and Darren O’Day have combined to allow just one earned run in 19.2 innings. Aroldis Chapman’s new splitter has been a pleasant surprise and even Michael King fired six scoreless relief innings in the first series against the Blue Jays. The biggest reason for optimism, however, is Jonathan Loaisiga. He was a potential breakout candidate and has not disappointed, with just one run allowed, five hits, one walk, and 8 strikeouts in eight innings thus far. I love the way he locates his fastball and I can really see him becoming a multi-inning weapon in the mold of Chad Green. When Zack Britton returns, I really think this has the potential to be one of the best bullpens in the league.
Worrying: Yankees’ treatment of Clint Frazier and Mike Tauchman
Frazier has had a whirlwind Yankees career. He came in the Andrew Miller trade at the 2016 trade deadline and was characterized by none other than Brian Cashman as having “legendary” bat speed. After an injury-plagued 2018 season, he appeared ready to have a role with the big league team in 2019, but he was sent to the minors to open the season with the team having so much outfield depth. When injuries hit the team hard in both 2019 and 2020, Frazier was able to play in 108 games. He slashed .267/.347/.497 with 20 homers during that stretch and even with up-and-down defensive performance, the team handed him the starting left field job for 2021 despite re-signing Brett Gardner. A slow start to the season (6 for 30 with 2 XBH and no RBI’s) and a two-day benching last weekend has many Yankees fans asking if the team was sincere about Frazier being the starter. While I love so many things about Brett Gardner’s game (constant hustle, tough-at bats, defense), and I can see how he can provide a spark through a meh start to the season, I really want to see what Frazier can do with an extended opportunity as the unquestioned starter in left-field. Gardner is going to get playing time when injuries inevitably strike and guys need rest days, so going to Gardy so early in the season strikes me as a desperation move at a time when the Yankees do not need to be desperate.
On the other hand, I never understood those clamoring for the Yankees to play start the season with Jay Bruce in the lineup. I always wanted them to open the season with Mike Tauchman ahead of Bruce, and my opinion has not changed. Bruce just offers no upside: he is a very poor defender at first base and in 224 games from 2018-2020, he has slashed .217/.282/.448 with 41 homers for an OPS+ of 95. He is not a league-average bat at this stage of his career and offers nothing defensively or on the basepaths. I have heard many calling for Mike Ford to start, but the same applies to him as well. I am not a fan of the defenseless, lugging, strikeout-heavy first baseman archetype. Tauchman has taken reps at first base during spring training and I am confident that his exceptional defense in center field would translate to a much easier position at first base. I am very high on Tauchman. Before a season-ending calf injury, his 2019 was unbelievable and even in a down 2020 he had a .342 OBP. He offers the Yankees a lefty bat that frequently gets on base, defensive versatility, and plus speed on the basepaths. It made no sense to me that they started Bruce in the first place and I would hope that they make the move to Tauchman sooner rather than later.
Promising: The season is still early
In 2018, the Yankees started 9-9. They went on to win 100 games. In 2019, they started 6-9 and went on to win 103 games. And while they started off strong in 2020, they went into a 5-15 tailspin that culminated in a 21-21 record. The point is, while these games matter just as much as games in September, there is still a lot of season left. The Yankees bats have far too much talent to slump for long. 538 still sees the team winning 93 games with Fangraphs at 92. Both sites see the team having a greater than 50% chance to win the division and avoid the wild card game and around an 80% chance to make the playoffs. While the season has not started off exactly as planned, I am still confident in the team’s chances to make a run in the playoffs.