It would be insensitive to put a picture of the Doomsday Clock here, but were there a baseball version, believe me, it’s what would lead off this piece. As you all likely know by now, MLB rejected yet another proposal by the MLBPA last night and the players are, predictably, heated. I’ll get to that in a a little bit, as I do want to have a little bit of fun first, though the exercise hardly seems relevant or realistic now. But, alas, let’s at least have some sliver of optimism, right?
Saturday morning, I put out a thought exercise on the Views twitter account–as I often do. It was as follows:
Most respondents picked the third trio as the one they’d take the elite/peak performance from, trusting in the other two to be able to perform well in the randomness of baseball. Let’s take a look at what the peak of each trio would be.
Watching the Yankees these days is exhausting, isn’t it? And not just because the offense is scuffling, something like 75% of the team has COVID or is otherwise incapacitated, and they’ve been underperforming for a calendar year. They are exhausting because the team seems allergic to playing in a blowout. Every game is a nail-biter! Consider the following statistics and facts about the 2021 Yankees:
They have played 62 games decided by 2 runs or less. Given that they’ve played 112 overall, such close games comprise an astounding 55% of their games this season. That is the highest amount and percentage in Major League Baseball this season.
Of those 62 games, about half (48%) have been one-run games.
While the Yankees are good in these games, going 19-11 (.633) in one-run games and 21-11 (.636) in two-run games, it is exhausting to watch. It must also be exhausting to play.
Unsurprisingly, they also play a lot of extra-innings games. Thirteen, in fact, going 6-7 in those games. That’s more than 10% of every game played so far.
By contrast, just 24 (21%) of the Yankees’ games are considered blowouts, meaning they’ve been decided by 5 or more runs in either direction. They are 12-12 in those games. Obviously, that’s bad.
Oddly, they’ve only had 4 blowouts since the All-Star Break: the awful 14-0 loss to Tampa, and 3 games they played against Baltimore.
Okay. So, that is a quick way to quantify something I bet we all knew already. The Yankees play a lot of close games! They don’t play in many blowouts. But this runs deeper than some fan agita. I think it has a real impact on the team. Back to the bulleted lists we go:
Incredibly, the Yankees have thrown 412 innings in relief this season, which ranks 15th in baseball. That’s not a lot, and it’s a lot lower than I expected it to be.
But they’ve also only thrown 993.2 innings overall, so just about 41% of the team’s innings have been in relief.
Nearly all of those innings have been high-leverage situations. In fact, the average leverage index when the Yankees bring a new pitcher into a game (so it cannot be a starter) in 2021 is 1.24. That is the highest mark in baseball by a considerable margin. (Tampa Bay is next closest, at 1.16. Tampa has also thrown the most relief innings in the league, for what it’s worth.)
But it’s not just the relievers who struggle here. It has to take a toll on the entire staff. Consider that the Yankees have thrown 8,907 pitches this season with the go-ahead run at the plate or on-base or with the tying run at the plate, on-base, or on-deck. That is the second most in baseball. It accounts for a ridiculous 55% of all their pitches thrown.
If you want to remove the last qualifier there – tying run on deck – the Yankees still fare poorly. They’ve thrown 7,717 pitches in the other scenarios, still second-most in baseball.
This actually gets worse. Let’s add in another qualifier, this time accounting for inning. I set the search this time to account for all of the above situations, limited to just the 7th, 8th, 9th, and extra innings. The Yanks lead the league in pitches thrown under those conditions, logging 2,530 such pitches. That’s nearly 100 more than Tampa Bay, the next closest team, and nearly 16% of their overall pitches.
Okay, let’s take a breath. There’s a lot to digest there. The takeaway is pretty clear, though. The Yankees play a lot of close games, and their pitchers are throwing A LOT of pitches in close games as a result. I think this is why we’ve seen so many blown games – there is no margin for error – and I also think it runs the risk of bullpen burnout by the end of the season. It can’t be easy to never enter a game in a laugher, and for every pitch to count even on days when you might not have it.
It also puts Aaron Boone, of whom I’ve been quite critical in 2021, in a tough position with the bullpen. We know they’re strict with usage, but this makes it even tougher. It’s not just back-to-back games or 3 out of 4 anymore. They’re almost entirely high-leverage, and thus high-stress situations. Those are more exhausting for everyone. And when a top reliever is on the shelf for a day, it means putting a worse, less capable arm in a big spot. It’s not ideal.
That’s the glass half-empty argument. The glass half-full argument is that the Yankees have been adept in these situations. They’ve won almost two-thirds of these games, and they’ve been one of the top performing pitching staffs in baseball by every metric. You could argue, and I suspect some will, that this makes the Yankees “playoff ready.” There is an element of truth to this, I am sure: playoff games are close, and it pays to have some experience in those situations.
But consider this: I am tired, and I’m sure the Yankees are too. It would be nice if they could go out and win a blowout game, maybe two. This would have more benefits than making you and I less tired. It might even help keep the team fresh in a grueling stretch – they have just two off-days between now and September 2nd. So, what do you say, Yanks? Think you can win a blowout game for us?
As I’m writing this, it’s Saturday afternoon and the Yankees are losing 8-0 to the Mets. Taijuan Walker, whom the Yankees were linked to in the offseason, is throwing a no-hitter. I was frustrated with the Yankees before today and now, well…
If there is any silver lining to this–a thin one at best–it’s that we’re lucky that a middling, near-.500 team is so frustrating to us. We could be Pirates or Royals fans. But, to twist the old Spider-Man saying, with great expectations comes great responsibility. The Yankees expected themselves to be championship caliber this year. We expected them to be championship caliber this year. So far, that hasn’t happened. And with each passing day, each week with another embarrassing loss (or set of losses!), it looks less and less likely, no matter how much we here have tried to be positive.
When he spoke to the media, Hal Steinbrenner said–however ineloquently–that the blame lies with the players and, loathe as I may be to agree with him, he’s right. The players, for the most part, haven’t played well enough. Aaron Judge has been great, as has Gerrit Cole. Giancarlo Stanton has also performed well. But those are the stars, the leaders of the team both literally and metaphorically. The other players haven’t played up to snuff, including DJ LeMahieu and, to an extent, Gio Urshela. This also goes for Gleyber Torres, whom Randy spoke about at length on the podcast. Jordan Montgomery hasn’t been consistent. Even at the minor league level, Deivi Garcia has been a colossal disappointment and the rotation is feeling his absence.
Despite the fact that the Yankees looked like a 95+ win team on paper, there were some question mark players coming into this year and almost all of them have answered those questions in the negative. Brett Gardner looks done. Clint Frazier has taken his opportunity and fallen with it rather than run with it. Jameson Taillon–despite many mitigating circumstances–hasn’t been reliable. Corey Kluber and Darren O’Day had/have been effective, but injured. Justin Wilson, when not injured, has been bad. Very bad. The only player who’s answered questions about himself is Gary Sánchez (we love to see it; haters are mad, etc.).
We all have frustrations with the front office or coaching staff, which I’ll address, but they aren’t the ones on the field playing poorly. Simply put, the players need to play better.
Those question marks and their continued poor performance reflect poorly on the coaching staff. While Gary is definitely a triumph for them this year, the regressions of Torres and Frazier are downright tragedies. The same could be said of Garcia’s regression, but that’s a different coaching staff. The team has been in an offensive malaise for most of the year and while it’s on the players, mainly, to break out of that, the coaching staff seems to have made few adjustments to players who need them. Aaron Boone and his staff generally present a calm, relaxed front, which is usually a good thing in a long baseball season. But that attitude hits a lot differently when the team is just a game above .500 rather than comfortably winning the division (remember what that felt like?).
Beyond the on-field staff, the front office should accept some blame here, too. Again, we thought this roster would be good enough to win a lot and, obviously, so did the front office. But it’s clear the team is too right-handed. It’s clear the gambles for Taillon and Kluber, while certainly defensible, did not pay off. It’s clear that building a solid rotation beyond one ace eludes Brian Cashman and his team. It’s clear that the team did not have good enough depth on the position side.
Yes, the Yankee right handed hitters are, generally, good enough against right handed pitchers. Yes, Taillon and Kluber had bankable upside. Yes, you hope not to have to use depth. But the Yankees’ bets in these areas did not pay off this year. The Yankees’ roster construction has become stale and rigid and easy to beat. For proof of that, look no further than this excerpt from a piece by Lindsey Adler:
Let’s go over that again: “I’ve been writing the same game plan against the Yankees for years.” That’s embarrassing. That’s an indictment on the organization in ways I can’t even describe. It speaks to an absolute arrogance in the Yankee front office that their way is superior and will never be altered. Again, yes, the Yankees have been incredibly successful for damn near thirty years, but maybe some processes need to change. Maybe some ideas need to be rethought. Maybe some changes have to happen.
To say the Yankee organization is rotten would likely be an overstatement, but let’s borrow another cliche since we already did one up above: a fish rots from the head. Hal Steinbrenner can’t play the games. He doesn’t do what the baseball operations department does. But he has the final word. Regardless of what his words may be, he doesn’t back them up with actions, at least not fully. Yes, the Yankees have signed Gerrit Cole and traded for Giancarlo Stanton, but as Bobby is quick to point out, the team has twice (!) cut $50MM in payroll during what should’ve been a slam dunk championship window. The team spends near the bottom of the league when it comes to payroll as a portion of revenue. The team has hardly budged in its spending from 2004. At least as much as the team has tried to win a championship on the field, its also tried to win Hal and company the luxury of not having to pay the luxury tax.
If Michael Kay is to be believed, the Yankees passed on Michael Brantley and Kyle Schwarber, two players who could’ve helped the Yankees for a multitude of reasons, because of cost and roster ‘constraints.’ That excuse is further proof of organizational arrogance and a pennywise, pound foolish attitude in the front office and ownership respectively. Those two things should almost never be a factor for a team as smart and as wealthy as the Yankees. They’re so smart, though, that they outsmart themselves and don’t lean on their biggest advantage nearly enough: money.
The team eventually did push three across against the Mets–woo!–but fell 8-3 on a rainy Saturday. Another dull-looking loss that has many rightfully questioning the team’s competitive spirit and determination. There’s not much time left (for Christ’s sake, [today’s] the Fourth of July!) to turn that on and I fear it might be impossible to do so.
That’s a direct quote from Yankees’ manager Aaron Boone back in February, via Bryan Hoch. Indeed, Clint Frazier deserves to be the starting left fielder for the Yankees. Especially after last season, when the 26 year-old was a shot in the arm for the 2020 club. He hit .267/.394/.511 (149 wRC+) in 160 plate appearances and unexpectedly played good defense.
And yet, Frazier has sat out three of the last five games. Unless he’s banged up, this is pretty unusual for a player named a starter. Sure, he hasn’t hit well so far. But who has? In fairness to Boone, Clint’s slow start (.200/294/.267, 65 wRC+) hasn’t been the manager’s reasoning. Rather, the skipper cited his desire to have a lefty in the lineup (Brett Gardner) over Frazier when the Yankees faced Chris Archer and Brent Honeywell/Michael Wacha last weekend.
Then, yesterday, Frazier was in the original lineup but not the final one. Once Toronto scratched Ross Stripling for TJ Zeuch, Boone swapped in Gardner for Frazier. Gardner singled against Zeuch last week, whereas Frazier struck out against him. Surely, that wasn’t the reason for the lineup change. Boone pointed to the different type of pitchers that Zeuch and Stripling are, for what it’s worth. Still, it’s weird.
Trading Luke Voit has become a conversation starter on the Yankees’ corner of the internet. Talk about the Yankees online long enough and someone will invariably bring up trading him. It makes some sense. Such a proposal shows a keen understanding of baseball economics: Voit’s pre-arbitration days are over, which means that he will collect a hefty raise this offseason. (MLB Trade Rumors estimates somewhere between $4-8 million, depending on the model.) Trade him now, in other words, and spend that money elsewhere.
It also seems to be a way to demonstrate creativity and to show a willingness to think outside of the box. A fan suggesting to trade Voit, who was one of baseball’s best players in 2020, shows shows that they are serious: as the old maxim goes, a realistic trade proposal is one that hurts both sides.
Unfortunately, it is also a very dumb idea. The Yankees should not trade Luke Voit. There are many reasons why, but let’s choose the three most obvious ones today.