Solving the Yankees' Problems
by Paul Semendinger
October 7, 2023
The Yankees were supposedly going to bring in experts to try to figure out how to get the team to become winners again. That talking point changed to something a lot less, in essence, the Yankees are going to have analytics people look at what other analytics people do (which, in the end, will amount to a whole lot of nothing).
There is a place for high level analytics in baseball. Absolutely. But, rather than focusing on often meaningless and/or misused statistics like "launch angle" and "exit velocity," the Yankees should be focusing their efforts in other areas. It's readily apparent that the Yankees' big push for players who have great exit velocity and optimum launch angles hasn't worked. They haven't had a World Series trophy since before those concepts became common place.
Sometimes we find that the conventional thinking of the day has inherent flaws. I think there are a lot of flaws with the ways many teams use analytics to run their teams. Sports still have a human factor that is unable to be quantitatively measured but that is an important part of understanding the game as a whole, any specific game, and specific situations within the game.
But, to get to the main point of this (long) article. what can or should the Yankees do to get back to their winning ways?
I have the answers for them. I'll provide these answers free of charge. None of this requires an advanced degree (although I have one). All this requires is good old common sense, baseball smarts, and understanding a bit of baseball (and Yankees) history. Unfortunately for the Yankees, in addition to not using advanced statistics correctly, their bigger problem has been a complete lack of baseball smarts and common sense and knowing their own history.
Here are the simple things the Yankees should do to make the team competitive again.
1.) Create A Lineup Comprised of Players With Different Hitting Styles
Years ago, the Yankees went all-in on building a lineup with big strong powerful right-handed hitting sluggers. It was one righty-hitting slugger after the next. Years ago, I also noticed and noted that the Yankees should never have Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton hitting back-to-back because good (not even great) pitchers could use the exact same approach and get them both out (seemingly easily). For the last many years, we have seen the Yankees employ a lineup of players who almost all have the exact same hitting approach - they try to crush every pitch they swing at, they swing from the heels, they strikeout often, they ignore fundamentals such as hitting the other way, having a two-strike approach, moving runners, and etc... This approach does not work. Instead of having a bunch of hitters who all swing in a similar fashion, teams need to have a variety of batters who approach hitting differently. These batters need to be spread out throughout the lineup. This is so logical and so elementary that it is amazing that with all their hard work crunching numbers that this simple and logical solution hasn't come to the Yankee decision-makers. The Yankees are so focused on what doesn't matter that they have ignored the obvious to their own detriment.
2.) Create a Lineup That Balances Left-Handed and Right-Handed Hitters
Again, this is something I have been saying for years. Years and years. A team cannot win with a lineup consisting mostly of right-handed hitters (especially, noting the above, when they all have the same approach to hitting). This is especially true for the Yankees who play in a ballpark designed more for left-handed power hitters. A lineup needs balance. All of the great Yankees teams, going back to the beginning of time, have been built around great lefty hitters (not just lefty power hitters though they are essentially important). The Yankees decision-makers thought they could outsmart history by having a lineup of right-handed hitters - some who sometimes hit home runs the other way. The logic was flawed, from the start. The results have proven that that approach does not work. Quality teams need quality right-handed batters and quality left-handed batters. How the decision makers could miss this for years and years and years is baffling to me. (It speaks to a certain level of incompetence.)
3.) Create a Lineup of Players With Different Skill-Sets
This is similar to the first two points, but it if different enough that it deserves special mention. Teams need players who can run - guys who can steal bases and take the extra base. They also need players who hit for power. They need players who know how to hit behind the runner and who can (imagine this) bunt when the situations call for it. The team should also employ a bench player or two who also has these skills so the team can send up the correct pinch hitter late in the game to do the necessary things to win based on the situation. The Yankees have been bereft of these types of players for far too long.
4.) Want Statistics? Focus on the Simple Ones
I know, I know. I get it. There is a certain glamour to trying to be the person who invents the next great approach. In many ways, I think the whole Moneyball approach has hurt the game of baseball - it reduced the game to numbers (in many ways) - to trying to find ways to win using stats, advanced stats, super-duper advanced stats, and the like. But, if you are the person who figures out something news and special, they might write a book about you. If you could do that, they might even make a movie about you. They might even have Brad Pitt play you in the movie! There is a lot of allure to all of that. I think the Yankees keep trying to be the people who invent the next great thing. Note, though, that the results of all of the Moneyball stuff was a brand of baseball that was less interesting and less fun, and, in the end, the approach the A's used won them a grand total of zero World Championships. Still teams copied their approach and also tried to find the next magic numbers. They have been chasing phantoms.
Want a team that wins? Get players who can hit .300, who can get on-base at a .400 clip, and also have some who can hit for power. What? Old time stats? Yes. While these stats are understood by all and they deprive the people using them of seeming like geniuses, they also serve to do one thing better than any of the other more advanced stats - they lead to winning. Great players have great advanced stats because they're... great players. They were, first of all, most often, .300 hitters. They are guys who knew how to hit. The other skills came after. The great advanced stats that so many measure them by, many for years after they've been dead, came as a result of them first being exceptional at simply hitting the baseball. The great players didn't focus on trying to generate great advanced stats - they were, simply, great hitters. Over time the new advanced stats proved how great they were. But they all started with the same basic premise - hitting the ball. The mark of being good at that was a .300 batting average. Acquire players who can hit and the rest will come.
5.) Build the Team Around Winners
This is also so obvious that it's amazing that the Yankees also haven't done this. Winners win. Teams need to be built around winning players. Teams also need coaches and managers who have won. One of the great flaws of the entire Aaron Boone era has been that the Yankees have tried to assemble (still do) a team of coaches (and a manager) not only who have very little experience leading or coaching (a fatal flaw) but who were also never winners in baseball. It takes something special, something a little bit different, to be able to win. Teams need those types of people around - in the clubhouse, in the dugout, and on the field. Before he came to the Yankees, Babe Ruth was a winner. Most of those early Yankees winning teams were built around former Red Sox players who knew how to win. The third baseman on those first World Series teams was Home Run Baker who won with the Philadelphia A's. They demonstrated winning baseball to the other players. Those teams were built around winners. This was also true of players like Catfish Hunter and Reggie Jackson who knew what winning was all about. Teams need winning players - and they also need coaches (and preferably a manager) who has won. The Yankees of recent years have been without all of this. You can teach winning, but the people who can teach it have to be winners themselves.
5B.) Only Acquire Players Who Will Positively Impact The Clubhouse
I was all for the signing of Carlos Rodon. I saw his numbers from the previous season. I thought his injury history was behind him. I was wrong. I didn't know, because I'm not in the industry, about his personality which seems, at best, to be very poor. It's the general manager's responsibility to make decisions based upon the complete player - not just his statistics, but also his personality.
The Yankees should who they are acquiring when they sign or trade for players. Brian Cashman has acquired a host of players that, for whatever reasons, couldn't perform for the Yankees. Understanding the people, who they are, how they'll help the team on the field, and in the dugout and clubhouse, is extremely important. A team has to acquire players who can contribute (or at least not detract) from being winners and who have the intestinal fortitude to handle playing under the biggest lights in the sport. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. The general manager has to know which players will wilt (in whatever way) under those bright lights. (Along these same lines, players who are problems need to be traded away or released.)
6.) Stay Away From Oft-Injured Players
A player cannot be great if he's not playing. For far too often, the Yankees have brought in players with excellent skills but whose most notable skills seem to be a propensity for getting injured. A team can't win when it is continually trying to find replacements for the starting players spending too much time on the Injured List.
7.) Treat Injuries Effectively
This point goes along with the above, bit it's slightly different. And, again, this is so obvious and readily apparent, but it's something the Yankees do not do well, at all. Jose Trevino was injured. They played him anyway. They played him for months. His performance hurt the team as he tried to play through the injury. He also hurt himself more and missed over half the season once he had to succumb to season-ending surgery. Anthony Rizzo suffered a concussion. They played him anyway. The negative results that followed were obvious. He also missed the rest of the year. Jasson Dominguez complained of pain. They played him anyway. He had Tommy John Surgery. He'll now miss a good portion of next year - and might never be the same player again. Here's a simple question - if you were a Yankee and you had an injury, would you trust the Yankees' medical staff to treat your injury? I wouldn't. Not at all. No way. The Yankees' approach to injuries has hurt the team, but worse, its damaged the players themselves and that is absolutely not acceptable. Want to be a winner? Learn how to best prevent injuries and to properly treat the injuries when they occur - and create a culture where players can be honest about how they feel. The Yankees sit healthy players for "load management" while sending out injured and compromised players game after game. This is all completely backwards.
8.) Have Accountability
When players don't hustle, they shouldn't play. We saw Giancarlo Stanton get tagged out at as he basically walked toward home plate late in a game. Was he really trying to score? At that point, he was either not trying or he was injured. Those are the only two possible explanations for the fact that he was basically walking. The first result should have found him benched (and fined). If you can't hustle, you can't play. If the explanation was the second result, that should have sent him to the Injured List. It had to be one or the other. For the Yankees, it was neither. This creates the exact opposite of a winning atmosphere. It creates an atmosphere where poor play, lackadaisical play, and the like is acceptable. It's no surprise the team doesn't win as a result of what the manager permits.
Another example of having no accountability regards the decision-makers who put Anthony Rizzo in the lineup day-after-day after suffering a concussion. Those decision-makers are still are employed by the team. A winning organization does not allow people to make terribly poor decisions (and for the Yankees it is time after time after time) and keep their jobs. The Yankees do. This is a huge part of the problem. If people are not held responsible for their decisions and actions, they're less likely to make good ones.
9.) Stop Over-Hyping, Rushing, and Expecting Too Much from Prospects
Jasson Dominguez is the next Mickey Mantle. Anthony Volpe is the next Derek Jeter. On and on (and it's been going on for a long time). Stop with this. Let Jasson Dominguez be Jasson Dominguez. Let Anthony Volpe be Anthony Volpe.
When the players arrive in the big leagues, let them take it in and mature, slowly. The Yankees rush these guys and expect too much from them. When the results are less than optimal, it is not a surprise.
But, also, when a player gets called up, that player should be given opportunities to play and not rot away on the bench as has also been the case.
Use a common sense approach to young talent. This is something the Yankees have done a terrible job at. Again, the less-than-positive results (Volpe's 81 OPS+, Dominguez's surgery, etc...) aren't surprising. If a player is rushed (Volpe) he might not perform. If a player is expected to be Superman (Dominguez) he just might over do it and suffer a major injury.
9B.) Be Bold With the Prospects
The Yankees over-hype their prospects. Most fail to live up to their promise. Most end up going quietly into the night. The Yankees have to be willing to trade their best prospects for proven quality Major League players when they can. Brian Cashman seems to be very reluctant to get burned in a trade and the result is that he holds on to prospects long after their light has dulled. When there might have been a time when a young prospect could have been traded for a difference-maker in the lineup, the Yankees instead hold on to the kid (who doesn't pan out) and then also lose out on the player who would have helped them win. There was a point where Brian Cashman was willing to trade a prospect like Eric Milton for Chuck Knoblauch and when he traded Ricky Ledee for David Justice. David Cone was traded for three promising young pitchers. Those traded helped lead to World Series championships. We haven't seen that type of boldness in more than two decades and the Yankees lose on both ends. If there is no spot on the big league club for the prospect, trade him when his value is the highest.
10.) Use the Team's Financial Might To Acquire The Best (Young) Players When They Are Available
When the Yankees acquired Giancarlo Stanton, I thought they were going back to the days of bringing in the best young talent as often as they could to build the best teams possible. That turned out not to be the case. Instead, they got Stanton and didn't get the better soon-to-be available player, Bryce Harper. (Now, in the moment, they had no way to be assured that Bryce Harper would be available, so they did act proactively by bringing in a superstar, so I still give them credit for that, but, once they acquired Stanton, they stopped when they were at the moment when they should have been continuing to bring in great players.) I wrote at the time, and since, that failing to get Harper would cost them dearly -forever. And it has. Bryce Harper has already been to more World Series than the Yankees since they passed on him.
The Yankees play in the sport's biggest market. The Yankees' franchise is the most valuable in the sport. It is worth billions of dollars more than the runner-up team. The Yankees are worth more than double most of the other teams in baseball. This is the Yankees' superpower. This is the area where they should operate. By failing to use their financial might, the Yankees serve to do one thing, handicap themselves. They cost themselves wins, they cost themselves championships, and, in the end, they cost themselves money. These are self-inflicted wounds. It is looking short-term rather than long-term. It also ignores history... YANKEES HISTORY. Most Yankees teams were built by the team acquiring generational talent to support the players they themselves developed. Babe Ruth, Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Joe DiMaggio (yes, Joe DiMaggio), Tony Lazzeri (both DiMaggio and Lazzeri were purchased from the Pacific Coast League), Roger Maris, Allie Reynolds, Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Roger Clemens, Paul O'Neill, David Wells, David Cone, Hideki Matsui, C.C. Sabathia.... the list is endless. The Yankees used to bring in the best players to help them win. The goal was clear - the Yankees' objective was to win. Today we hear the owner talk more about luxury taxes and penalties and the costs than winning. As he has focused on the costs it takes to win, there is one thing his team has not done... win.
11.) Understand That Sunk Costs Are Sunk Costs
Not all trades and free agent signings work out. Once that happens, the team has to be prepared to move on. Small market teams let big financial mistakes cripple them. The Yankees never used to let that happen, but they do today.
The Yankees are going to pay Giancarlo Stanton's salary in 2024 (and beyond), or at least the bulk of it. They have a choice, they can trade him (and eat a ton of salary), release him (and eat a ton of salary), or play him (and pay him his salary). The common denominator is that he's going to cost the Yankees money. Of the three options, one negatively impacts on winning - and that is playing him. Giancarlo Stanton is not a player who is going to help the Yankees win. He doesn't hit. He doesn't get on base. He cannot run. He cannot play the field. The Yankees will pay him one way or the other. If they play him, they're make the team less successful. His is a sunk cost. The question is whether the Yankees will allow that sunk cost to hurt the team. The answer is they should not. It's time to move on in whatever way they can from Giancarlo Stanton.
12.) Build The Starting Pitching Staff Around Durable Starting Pitchers
The Yankees need workhorses at the top of the rotation. Their strategy for a very long time has been to build a strong bullpen at the expense of quality starters. The Yankees feel that if they get five innings from a starter, that is good enough. It isn't. They need more. The Yankees rely on their bullpens far too much. We see the bullpen burn itself out year after year. There is only one way to prevent that - by having a strong, high-quality, starting rotation made up of pitchers who eat lots of innings. Gerrit Cole shouldn't be the exception. His type of pitcher, a player who goes out there consistently, and pitches deep into games, must be the rule. (I'm not saying every pitcher will be as good as Cole, but the Yankees can draft pitchers like this, they can build pitchers in their system who can pitch deeper into games, and they can trade and sign these types of pitchers when they're available. Yes, they will be costly, but this is another way the Yankees need to use their financial might to build a winning team.
12B.) Some of those Starting Pitchers Have to be Left-Handed
Just as the Yankees have always won with left-handed bats, they also must have strong left-handed starting pitching. This is obvious on its face. The Yankees have tried, continually, to go against this historical fact and it has cost them.
As I have said before, none of this is rocket science. The Yankees don't need thinktanks and brain trusts and analytic teams to figure out what is readily apparent in it face. The fact that the Yankees have not done most of the above for a great many years, demonstrates, clearly, that the decision-makers are not up to the task that their jobs require.
It might build someone's ego to feel like he or she is the smartest person in the room, but most often the person who thinks he or she is the smartest, just isn't. The Yankees have tried for far too long to be the smartest person in the room. They haven't been. It has cost them, dearly.
The plan I outlined above doesn't require great smarts, rather it requires a commitment to simply look at things logically. As the Yankees moved away from what worked throughout their history, they became less and less successful. If they return to the tried and true methods of building a great team, they will be surprised how quickly they become a powerhouse again.
A note to other baseball writers, podcasters, talkers, and the like - if you borrow or use any of these ideas, do the right thing and give credit where credit is due - to the author of this article and this site.