My Thoughts on the Yankees
By Chris O’Connor
October 9, 2021
After taking a few days to digest the loss to the Red Sox and gather my thoughts, I have tried to put some perspective on the Yankees season.
“The league has closed the gap on us.” Aaron Boone
I do not think that there is any quote that best epitomizes the Yankees failures of the current era more than this one.
The Yankees have certainly been on a nice run the past 5 years: 5 playoff appearances, 2 ALCS appearances, numerous fun playoff moments. But that is all it is. It has been a nice run, but nothing that will be legacy-defining, nothing that people today will tell their grandkids about. The Yankees think that they are ahead of the curve. They stubbornly believe in their philosophy at the expense of diversifying their approach. They believe that doubling and tripling down on patient, strikeout-heavy power hitters is the optimal approach. They believe that defense and athleticism is either overvalued or not worth the sacrifice in offensive upside. They believe that excessive spending is not necessary to win a title, despite having far and away the most valuable franchise in the game. They believe that they are ahead of the curve, that the rest of the league has to catch up to them. Some of those things may be true. Most of them may be true. But taken together, they paint the picture of a franchise that has fallen behind the times.
I do like that the Yankees value process; luck is always involved in baseball, especially in small samples, and the best that teams can do is control what they can control. But in life, the only thing that matters is results. As Bill Parcells famously said, “You are what your record says you are.”
The Yankees have won exactly one division title since 2012. They have not been to a World Series in more than a decade. Their 2017 was a magical season that saw almost everything come together. But since then, have the Yankees ever been the best team in the league?
In 2018, the Red Sox and Astros were on another level.
In 2019, the Yankees won the division and had a great year, but they ran out a playoff rotation of Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, and a hobbled Luis Severino. While one could split hairs on the lineups, the Astros ran out Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke. This was probably the closest the Yankees came to the top of the league and yet their rotation was still astronomically behind the Astros, not to mention their season-long run differential was +204 compared to the Astros +280. I think it is pretty clear that the Astros were the better team.
In 2020, the Yankees went 33-27 and made the playoffs only because MLB belatedly expanded the playoffs.
And in 2021, the Yankees were one game away from being forced into a Game 163 tiebreaker just to make it into the Wild Card game.
I do not mean to take away anything from these teams. The Yankees have had some great teams during these playoff runs and were close many times to advancing. If just a few of those Astros relay throws in Games 1 and 2 of the 2017 ALCS go slightly off line, maybe that is a different series (and if they don’t cheat). If Gary Sanchez’s sacrifice fly in Game 4 of the 2018 ALDS went 10 more feet, the Yankees win that game and set up a winner-take-all in Boston. If Aroldis Chapman, who had looked great through two hitters in the bottom of the ninth of 2019 ALCS Game 6, did not suddenly lose the strike zone against George Springer, maybe he does not let up the Altuve home run and the Yankees win that game…
But that is a lot of ifs.
Taken together, it portrays a team that needed luck on their side to win those series because the Yankees were not the better team in any of those series. 2017 saw the Yankees shock the world, and the future looked as bright as ever. Since then? All they have done in the playoffs is beat the A’s in a one game Wild Card, the Twins in a Division Series, and the Indians in a three-game Wild Card series. The A’s and Twins are notorious for playoff failures: the A’s have lost 9 straight winner-take-all games while the Twins have lost 18 consecutive playoff games. The 2020 Indians were not exactly world-beaters, either. The Yankees have lost to the Astros, the Rays, and the Red Sox twice. All of those teams have at least been to a World Series since 2018. The Yankees of recent years, aside from maybe 2019, just have not been on these teams’ level. The Yankees can try to fool themselves into thinking that they are up there with the best of the best, but reality has proven otherwise.
Speaking of the Red Sox: CC Sabathia made a great point about them on his podcast with Ryan Ruocco. How is it possible, he asked, that the Red Sox overwhelmed the Yankees in 2018 on their way to a title and then did a full rebuild before beating the Yankees again in 2021? In that stretch, they traded their best player, fired their manager and general manager, bottomed out in the standing, re-hired their manager, and beat essentially the same Yankees again with a very different team? Sure, stars like Bogaerts, Sale, Devers, Martinez, and Eovaldi are still there. But they have greatly improved their marginal pieces by adding guys like Kike Hernandez and Hunter Renfroe. The Yankees need to do something similar: they have their stars in Cole, Judge, and Stanton. What they need is to surround those guys with more dynamic pieces, guys that bring either a more diverse approach to the plate and/or guys with plus versatility and athleticism that can improve the defense and baserunning.
Unless they win a title, this core will always be remembered for their playoff failures. Didi’s home run in the 2017 Wild Card game; the 2017 ALCS Game 4 comeback; Judge’s home run in the 2018 Wild Card game; pretty much all of 2019’s next man up mentality; it will surely be remembered, but always in the context of “Yes but… they never won a World Series.” Great playoff moments do not have to come in title-winning seasons. Perhaps the two greatest moments of the Yankees late 90’s-early 2000’s dynasty were Jeter’s flip play in 2001 and Boone’s walk-off home run against the Red Sox in 2003. Both of those seasons would end in World Series losses. The difference in why those moments are remembered so fondly, versus why the great moments of this era will be to a far lesser extent, is that those Yankee teams had won multiple titles. It is easy for people to relish those memories because that era symbolized Yankees dominance, even if those individual seasons did not end in rings. Even one ring would do the trick: look at the Dodgers, who overcame seven years of playoff failures to finally win it all in 2020. That one ring validates the Dodgers recent dominance, and I am worried that this Yankees era will pass by with a whimper.