What the Yankees Should Have Learned this Month
The 2018 Yankees were good enough to win 100 games and play three tough games against the eventual AL champion Boston Red Sox in the LDS. The game three loss was one of the worst post-season Yankee defeats in recent, or not so recent, memory, but the other three games were hard fought and could have gone either way. Despite this, some of the Yankees flaws were exposed in the playoffs. These flaws are even more evident when comparing the Yankees to the two teams facing off in the World Series, the Red Sox and the Dodgers.
First, although 2018 was the year the bullpenning broke through as a legitimate post-season strategy, both the Dodgers and Red Sox had solid four man rotations that pitched well in the postseason. Kershaw-Ryu-Buehler-Hlil and Sale-Price-Porcello-Eovaldi were generally somewhere between solid and excellent throughout the postseason. This allowed both of these teams to keep their bullpens rested and avoid turning key innings over to third tier relievers. A key point here is that in today’s game most good teams have 3-4 relievers who come to the postseason with gaudy stats including low ERAs and lots of strikeouts per nine innings. That is now a constant for good teams, not a variable. The challenge in the postseason is to get enough innings out of starting pitching that these good bullpens don’t get overworked. The Yankees were unable to do that.
Second, it is increasingly clear that three true outcome baseball may work in the regular season, but in the post-season when the pitching is consistently much better than the regular season, meaning there are fewer walks or home runs, that approach is less effective. The Yankees were an extreme true outcome team in 2018 with fully 36.88% of all plate appearances ending in either a walk, strikeout or homerun. The that number for the Red Sox and Astros was 33.21% and 32% respectively. Because of the DH rule, these numbers are not easily comparable across leagues, but for the Dodgers the number was 36.45%.
During the regular season, the Yankees averaged 3.85 walks and 1.65 home runs per game. Against the Red Sox in the LDS, those numbers dropped to three walks and one home run a game. The Yankees BABIP, which is a good heuristic for the offense they got from things other than walks and homeruns was .285 in the regular season, .009 below the league average and fell to .250 in the Red Sox series. All of this points to how the Red Sox pitching stopped the Yankee offense cold, but the heavy dependence on the three true outcomes made this particularly problematic for the Yankees. They did not need a few big homeruns to turn the series around. During games one and four, there were 6-8 at bats where single, even a bloop single would have turned a loss into a win. The Yankees never got that hit. The power took a natural dip against better pitching, but the offense built around walks and homeruns was unable to compensate for that.
The easiest person to blame for this is Giancarlo Stanton whose ninth inning strikeout with two runners on base in game four was just one of several times in that series when the slugger came up empty in potentially game changing situations. That strikeout will likely be the enduring memory from a solid, but unspectacular season from Stanton, his first with the Yankees. However, the fault cannot be laid entirely at the feet of Stanton. The problem is bigger than that and starts with a team that had five batters with 100 or more strikeouts, two more with between 90-99 whiffs and 180 more team strikeout than the Astros, Red Sox or Indians, the other teams that made it into the final four in the American League.
The Yankees have some work to do if they want to play deeper in October next year. The first, and most glaring need, is to bolster the starting rotation so that there is less pressure on the bullpen in the post-season. Some help may come from within, but there is little reason to think Justus Sheffield or a healthy Jordan Montgomery can be top of the rotation pitchers. The Yankees will need to sign or trade for at least one impact pitcher, but pitching is not their only problem.
There are some real holes in the Yankee lineup. Left field is a big question mark. Luke Voit was fantastic at first base for the last quarter or so of the season, but is not a clear long term solution. Didi Gregorius’s injury means that the Yankees will need one more solid infielder next season. Accordingly, there are three lineup spots that are question marks. When filling those holes, the Yankees need to not just find good offensive contributors, but players who can diversify the offense. In a lineup with Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Miguel Andujar, Gleyber Torres and Stanton, the Yankees can afford to give up power in a few places if it means fewer strikeouts and more balls in play leading to a team that will be more difficult to beat in October.
Photo: cc/ Daniel Hartwig