By Patrick Gunn
July 15, 2021
The Yankees found new, fascinating, and tragic ways to showcase their talents in the first half. Remarkably, NY presented themselves as both a team talented enough to win a World Series and as a squad destined to massively disappoint fans and pundits. Their 3-9 record when going for sweeps signifies New York’s effort – a team close to dominating an opponent but always coming up short one way or another.
Now, the Yankees have not been all terrible in the first half. Quite the opposite, the team has had several great moments. They just have not broken out as expected. The losses have felt worse because the Yankees have struggled in such key moments. A 5-8 record against the Rays; playing even worse (0-6) against the Red Sox; winning four of six against the Astros but losing two games going for sweeps on Jose Altuve three-run homers; getting swept by the 2021 Detroit Tigers; Aroldis Chapman’s June and July.
Moments like that allow the positives of the Yankees’ season to drift away quickly. The Bombers, technically, are still in contention for a playoff spot and are a couple of good weeks away from the top of the American League. Here is a listicle discussing my thoughts on the Yankees’ first half and where the Bombers should go next.
Aaron Judge is still a Superstar
Judge finally finished the first half of the season without a major injury and looked a heck of a lot like the stud from his rookie year. No, he is not leading the league in home runs, but Judge is doing everything else he did well in 2017. He is getting on base (12.5 BB%), cutting down his strikeouts (25 K%, which would be a career-low for him), and hitting the ball hard (95.8 average exit velocity, all statistics per Baseball Savant). Just look at his Expected wOBA compared to league average, per Baseball Savant:
Judge is a stud, case closed.
Gary Sánchez & Giancarlo Stanton are Streaky but Good
Sánchez and Stanton’s power have mostly come in spurts this season. Stanton tore the cover off the ball in late April and early May, while Sánchez owned June. Both righties showed why they are cornerstones of the Yankees’ lineup when healthy. Sánchez has dealt with a lot of bad faith criticism over the last three seasons for his struggles – especially on defense – so it felt good to watch him rake.
Gerrit Cole? Yes, Gerrit Cole
The spin-rate conversation/spider tack hurts Cole. Even with that, the Yankees’ $324 million man has mostly pitched to his ace status. He has gone deep into games, struck out a ton of batters (33.5% to be exact), and come up big on several occasions. His last start against Houston showed how good of a pitcher Cole can be, sticky stuff or not.
Jonathan Loaisiga’s Breakout
Loaisiga has always had the talent to be an elite pitcher. Now, he has figured out how to do get batters out consistently. The secret has been his sinker. He averages 98.0 mph with the pitch while throwing it 55.1% of the time. Batters have an 83.7 exit velocity against the pitch and a wOBA of .262. Also, three of Loaisiga’s pitches – his sinker, changeup, and curveball – all have wOBA’s below .270. That has helped Loaisiga keep minuscule barrel rates (2.4%) and average exit velocities (84.3 mph) on the season, despite a lower strikeout percentage of 25.1% as a reliever. The multi-inning righty has proved to be an important cog in the Bomber’s bullpen this season.
Corey Kluber’s No-Hitter (and other rare occurrences)!
Yes, this happened this season. Kluber took part in MLB’s early-season no-hitter parade, keeping holding the Rangers without a hit in mid-May. Not to mention the Yankees have turned three triple-plays this season and have two immaculate innings – one from Michael King and another from Chad Green. The Yankees have been strange this year in more ways than one.
Gleyber Torres, DJ LeMahieu, & Brett Gardner:
The Yankees’ offensive struggles have been team wide, but these three players highlight several aspects of the team’s struggles. Torres has hit in the middle of the order all season and he has struggled mightily to hit the ball hard. His barrel rate has dropped from 10.1% in 2019 to 6% this year, while his average exit velocity is down from 89.1 to 86.4 mph. That has turned into just three home runs and a .308 slugging percentage. He is only 24, but Gleyber is taking a senior year slump to the max.
LeMahieu just signed a six-year extension and has hit better over the last month (.792 OPS in June). That does not excuse his poor performance overall at the top of the order. He has always had low barrel rates, so his 4.2% is not that surprising. Seeing his xSLG drop from .419 to .453 is upsetting, but then again, he rarely has profiled as a power hitter over his career aside from the last two seasons. He just is not hitting at the same level he has in Pinstripes, which has hurt their lineup. Especially when he has rolled over pitches with runners in scoring position (which we will get to shortly).
Gardner is a veteran on the team and is one of two lefties (the other being Rougned Odor) to have significant at-bats this season. He has always played good defense and took a lot of walks for the Yankees, but he is starting to hit like a 37-year-old. His power is all but gone (86.4 exit velocity, 2.8 barrel %, .289 xSLG) and he is only marginally better against fastballs (.344 XSLG). The fact that he and Odor (.311 WOBA) are the Bombers’ only lefties is a problem at Yankees Stadium.
(Clint Frazier and Odor have also contributed mightily to these struggles.)
The Backend of the Rotation:
This is far from the Yankees’ biggest concern, but the Yankees’ pitching depth behind Cole and Jordan Montgomery has been shaky at best. Jameson Taillon has pitched better over his past two starts, but he has given up a lot of hard-hit balls (39.9% to be exact) without elite strikeout or walk totals. His 3.99 xERA vs. his 4.90 ERA suggests that he may have more in the tank, and he is more of a long-term prospect.
The rest have been horrid. Domingo Germán has thrown to an elite chase rate and is allowing a career-best 5.6 BB%. He also has allowed a .451 XSLG with batters getting hard-hit balls 39.2% of the time. On top of that, his strikeout rate has dropped to a career-low 21.9%. He can rebound, but Germán may be best suited either as a reliever or a trade piece.
After that, the Yankees have struggled to find depth at the end of their bullpen. Michael King has consistently pitched great as a reliever but struggled as a starter thanks to allowing a .500 OBP and a 1.385 OPS in the first inning. Kluber’s injury has hurt the Yankees’ depth, and Deivi García’s struggles in the minors are not helping. Maybe the combination of Nestor Cortes Jr. (who has been awesome) as a two-three inning opener followed by King will help, but the Yankees need more depth from the back-end of the rotation.
RISP (and Runners on Base):
The Yankees have a measly .225 with runners in scoring position, ahead of only the Brewers and Pirates in MLB this season. The Yankees have been comically bad in situations with runners on base, unable to get a hit despite sitting in the top-ten in league on-base percentage.
Part of the Yankees’ struggles has come from hitting into so many double plays. The Yankees are second in the league by grounding into 87 double-plays, second to only the Astros. Stanton, Gio Urshela, and Sánchez have each grounded into at least ten double plays, while Judge (9), Miguel Anújar (8), Frazier (8), and D.J. LeMahieu (7) have all contributed to this trend.
Notice a pattern with these hitters? They are all right-handed with mediocre sprint speeds. The Yankees have teetered on the edge of success and disaster with mostly right-handed lineups for years and now the collective struggles of the team have caught up with them. Left-handed hitters may not help them get hits with RISP, but it could help with avoiding double-plays.
Chapman’s Recent Collapse
This has already been mentioned, but the topic bears repeating. Aroldis Chapman has pitched horribly over the last two months. Since the calendar flipped to June, Chapman has surrendered 15 runs in 9.2 innings while allowing 13 walks and four home runs.
Hitters have a .571 XSLG and a .450 wOBA against Chapman’s fastball – his bread-and-butter pitch – this season. Such has caused him to lean more heavily on his secondary pitches in key spots, leading to Chapman missing with his slider and giving up home runs with that pitch.
The last two months have been a disaster for the Yankees’ closer. Enough has been said about his struggles at this point. The Yankees and Chapman need to figure out how to turn this season around.
Flopping vs. The Red Sox & Rays
Yeah, performing well against the American League only gets a team so far if a team cannot win games within its division. The Bombers have played nearly neutral against the Orioles and Blue Jays but have fallen to a 5-14 clip against the Rays and Red Sox. The Yankees have started to turn a corner somewhat against the Rays after a slow start, but New York has yet to win a game against the Red Sox. The Yankees need to turn that around and win some series against Tampa Bay and Boston to get back into the playoff picture.
The fate of the Yankees’ season may lie in their performance over the next two weeks. The trade deadline is right around the corner, and it is not worth it for the team to give away prospects for a team that struggles to get out of its own way. Eight of the Bombers’ first 10 games out of the break come against Boston, adding to the Yankees’ urgency to these next few games.
Rizzo, Kimbrel, Gallo, oh my!
The Yankees should stay in touch with the Cubs and Rangers if they choose to buy. Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo both have left-handed swings perfectly tailored to hit home runs in Yankees Stadium while getting on-base. Acquiring Rizzo would mean having to move Luke Voit, who’s been struggling this season. As for Gallo, he comes with a pedigree of striking out a ton, but he offers enough at the plate for the Yankees to want him while also having the ability to play multiple positions.
Also, if the Cubs have a full fire sale, the Yankees should ask about all players, including several arms in the Cubs’ bullpen. Craig Kimbrel makes a lot of sense, as an aging player who has returned to ace reliever status. Any deal for Kimbrel or Rizzo would require the Yankees to give up a lot, but they are the type of players for the Yankees to break the bank for if the Bombers are contenders.
But if they Sell?
Now, Brian Cashman should be ready for the possibility that the Yankees need to retool for next season. The Yankees do have some intriguing players that could free the Yankees space and help change up their lineup. Urshela (29) and Voit (30) are both talented players who are slower, right-handed players that could net the Bombers some good prospects from other teams. Germán and Chapman would be harder pieces to move, but they could be packed with other players for pieces.
Aaron Boone’s Next Steps
Boone’s contract expires after this season. The Yankees have been consistently patient with managers since Joe Torre took over the job in 1996, as Boone has been the Yankees’ third manager over the last 25 years. With that said, the Yankees have only won a single division title under Boone and have underachieved over the last two seasons. The emotion and the vibe of the Bombers have not been the same as the spirited “savages in the box” squad from 2019, especially in close games. Aaron Boone must prove that he is essential to the Yankees’ quest for title number 28 over these last few months.