Happy Friday, everyone. The Yankees lost a stinker yesterday – god I hate that damn extra innings rule – but look better overall. Let’s hope they can beat up the lowly Tigers this weekend.
It’s time for another mailbag before the game starts, of course. As always, send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org to be considered for a future edition. We choose our favorites each week and run them on Friday. To the questions!
Steven Asks: At what point do we put aside small sample sizes and begin to question the entire team’s approach to hitting?
This is a good question. A lot has changed about the way the media and fans discuss baseball over the last 20 years. Perhaps the biggest change is the obsession with small sample size analysis – and VF314 is no exception. We discuss small samples all of the time, particularly as it relates to the early season. There are a few reasons for this.
The first is that baseball is a marathon, with ups and downs. Teams go through malaises at some point in a year. Remember in 2019, when the Yankees starters couldn’t get a single out? You might not! That’s because it occurred in August of a very fun year where the Yanks handily won the division. This year’s April offensive drought will likely be more memorable simply because it came at the beginning of the season. It’s like 2005, where the Yanks started 11-19. Early season struggles are memorable. It’s just human nature.
The second is that things change fast. Last week, I wrote a post that detailed how the Yankees could not buy a hit. They were hitting .205/.296/.334 (83 wRC+) with negative WAR, 28th “best” in the league. Just eight days later, the team is up to .216/.310/.369 (98 wRC+) with 2.3 WAR, which is 20th in the league. This may not seem like much – it’s still far below expectations – but it’s real progress. The point is that the Yankees improved 8 ranks offensively in eight days – and they weren’t exactly tearing the cover off the ball. These things are fluid. Next week, it will be even more different.
But at what point does a sample stop being small, though? I feel like that doesn’t get discussed as much. It’s going to vary a bit. There are mathematical models that show the variance for each statistic, but those really range. I start paying closer attention around 100 plate appearances, personally. That is outside the window of the so-called Voros Law, which says that any MLB player can be anything in 60 at-bats. You probably need another 50 or so plate appearances before you can really get conclusive, though. But 100 PA is a good marker, at least subjectively, to start determining what trends are real. That means roughly mid-May.
Still, that is not a hard rule. Remember, Derek Jeter hit .168/.255/.232 in April 2004, across 108 plate appearances. He was fine overall and even ended the year hitting .292/.352/.471. Baseball is a weird sport, but the least you can do is try not to get fired up over the first month of the season. Crazy stuff happens.
Zach Asks: We’re seeing better at-bats from a lot of guys now, but when you look at the outfield, Clint Frazier and Aaron Hicks are still struggling. Which of the two, if either, do you worry about from a long-term perspective?
It’s true. They’re both mired in some vicious slumps right now. Here are each of their lines:
- Aaron Hicks: .139/.233/.266 (47 wRC+) in 90 plate appearances
- Clint Frazier: .150/.292/.250 (67 wRC+) in 72 plate appearances
Those are some ugly lines! No doubt about it. Remember what I said above, though. It’s still early, even if they both look mostly lost at the plate. Clint is making significant adjustments to his stance and logged a multi-hit game just two days ago. He also logged a 149 wRC+ literally last season. To me, the Clint struggles feel like a simple slump. I don’t think that he’s necessarily a true-talent 149 wRC+ hitter or anything, but he’s likely an above-average bat. Early season slumps are early season slumps.
Of the two, I think it’s fairer to worry a bit more about Hicks. He did have Tommy John surgery after 2019, after all, and he’s on the wrong side of 30. Still, I am not concerned with Hicks, who is generally the most underrated current member of the Yankees. I think he is a very good hitter – all he’s done while healthy since 2017 is hit – and he will turn it around. He is still managing to walk even in this slump, during which it has not seemed like he has good command of the strike zone. I’m confident that he’ll snap out of the slump.
I could be wrong, of course, but I wouldn’t be super worried with either. If they’re both still producing at this level on June 1, then we can have a conversation. I wouldn’t bet on it, though.
Dan Asks: Can you provide an assessment of Aaron Boone as a manager, how you think his tenure with the Yankees has gone, and what the Yankees would need to do to move on from him?
Assessing a manager is very difficult from our vantage point. More than half of the job takes place off the field, and managers themselves probably have less decision-making power in 2021 than they have at any point in MLB history. Still, we can try to be at least somewhat objective. Let’s run though it.
In terms of results, Boone has been very good. The Yankees are 247-161 (.600) in his tenure, and they had their best individual campaign since the 2009 championship in 2019 – despite a barrage of injuries. Those are serious points in Boone’s favor. Despite the fact that it feels like Boone’s team’s underperform – I certainly felt this way in 2018 and 2020 – the results don’t really bear this out. By the numbers, at least, he’s delivered.
Another area to examine is his bullpen usage. I don’t mean on a day-to-day basis, either. Load management is both here to stay and also likely a decision Boone himself does not get to make. I mean over the long-haul: how is he using his best arms? Is he putting them in the right positions to best help the team? By this measure, too, Boone has been good. 16 pitchers have thrown at least 30 innings in relief since 2018. Here are the top 5, sorted by average leverage index at the time they enter the game:
- Aroldis Chapman: 1.56
- David Robertston: 1.41
- Zack Britton: 1.36
- Dellin Betances: 1.32
- Chad Green: 1.29
Is there anything you’d really change about that? I wouldn’t. Those are clearly the Yankees best relievers over the stretch, with Adam Ottavino and Tommy Kahnle just outside the top 5. At the bottom of the the list are names like Adam Warren, Luis Cessa, Stephen Tarpley, David Hale, and A.J. Cole. Again: that seems about right. This is a big point in Boone’s favor. Over the long-haul, he has used the bullpen exactly how you’d want him to, contrary to our day-to-day quibbles.
Still, I can’t fault anyone for thinking that the Yankees have been less than the sum of their parts overall. I think this pretty often, actually. They often seem to play pretty sloppy, making errors on routine plays, running into outs, and are sometimes unable to play situational baseball. To me, at least, a lot of that falls on the manager. They should, in the words of their skipper, “tighten that shit up.”
Anyway, I think the Yankees would need a real disaster season to move on from Boone. Either that or Boone just demands a much higher salary than they’re willing to pay, which is possible but unlikely. The Yankees dumped Joe Girardi, the last manager to take them to the Canyon of Heroes, after a surprise ALCS appearance. They brought Boone on to be the guy to steer the ship in the new era. I doubt they walk that back now.
Jason Asks: Is the championship window closing if they don’t win it all this year?
Yes and no. A championship window closes every year that you don’t win a World Series. It is why 2017 and 2019 sting so bad. They had a real chance, and in fact I thought a title was inevitable, in both years. The team is not getting younger, and regression is always possible. And it gets harder to replenish talent all of the time. At some point, you gotta win.
At the same time, the Yankees are always in a championship window, if they choose to be. They can spend as much money as anyone to plug holes and they don’t have to let bad contracts prevent them from doing so again. Not to mention, the Yanks have just $100 million on the books for 2023, so it’s not like they’re bogged down. And, while it pains me to say this to the many fans who inexplicably hate Brian Cashman, he has never produced a bad team. The Yanks will be good for a while, I suspect – but each year they go without reaching the promised land, the harder it will be to get there with this group. No doubt about it.