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Coming Up Short [2021 Season Review]

TAMPA, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 28: Gleyber Torres #25 of the New York Yankees fields a ground ball from Lourdes Gurriel Jr. #13 of the Toronto Blue Jays (not pictured) during the second inning during a spring training game at George M. Steinbrenner Field on February 28, 2021 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

When the Yankees signed DJ LeMahieu before the 2021 season and passed on trading for/extending Francisco Lindor, the Yankees were making a statement: “Gleyber Torres is our shortstop.” Despite a relatively disappointing 2020, the Bombers banked on 2018 and 2019 and went full steam ahead with Gleyber. It did not go as planned.

All told, Torres hit .259/.331/.366, ‘good’ for a .307 wOBA/94 wRC+. This came with a drop in walk rate (about 4%), a rise in strikeout rate (about 3%), and a career low ISO (.107).

A main culprit in Torres’ second down year in a row? Underperformance against fastballs. While his xBA/xSLG/xWOBA on number one were respectable–.235/.449/.335 respectively–the actual numbers were, uh, bad: .196/.322/.282. In terms of raw run value, Torres was -15 on fastballs in 2021, -2.2 per 100 fastballs; he had a similar mark in 2020 (-2.1). We can wave away some of the pandemic season, but to see that trend continue is disheartening and we’ll have to hope Torres doesn’t have Greg Bird Disease and forgot how to hit a fastball.

But the most damning thing about this season for Torres isn’t the unspectacular performance at the plate. It’s the fact that he ended the year as a second baseman instead of a shortstop. Here’s a look at his defensive numbers:

SystemScore
UZR+0.1
DRS-2
FRAA-2.6
OAA-9 

A note on that -9 Outs Above Average mark: it’s in the 1st percentile among Major Leaguers. Excuse my hyperbole, but that’s where you and I would rank if we played shortstop at the Major League level. There isn’t too much to say here except that his defense became unacceptable at the position and the Yankees moved him off with good reason.

To add injury to insult, Torres missed time in the spring with COVID and in the summer with a thumb sprain. Just before the latter–first missed game was August 9th–it looked like Torres was turning a corner, hitting hot for the beginning of the month. He did manage to end the year–he returned September 3rd–on what constituted a hot streak for him, hitting .280/.339/.420 for the final month of the season. While it’s a far cry from his breakout years in 2018-19, it’s tempting to say that we’d take that from him in 2022.

Few players come into a season with the type of expectations Gleyber Torres had going into 2021. Unfortunately for him and for the Yankees, he not only didn’t live up to those expectations; he fell well short. Hopefully he bounces back in 2022 and lives up to the commitment the Yankees made to him in some way.

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The Process

The Process. For the better part of a decade, we’ve heard this term in sports, sometimes earnestly, sometimes as a mockery of that earnestness. Regardless, though, every team in every sport has a Process. From time to time, that Process needs to be altered if not outright changed. As I wrote last week, the Yankees are at a crossroads and their process is in need of alteration at the least and revolution at the most.

Allow me an oversimplification. There are two parts to the Process that have to happen before we see the results on the field: acquisition and application. First you’ve gotta get what you need, then you’ve gotta put that stuff–players, information, whatever–in a good position to succeed. For the most part, the Yankees are pretty good at the former.

Year in and year out, they put a good team out on the field. They’ve had no losing seasons since I was, like, five and have only missed the playoffs four times since 1994. That’s really good! Of course, that’s only led to one championship in the last twenty years and has more recently ended in a good deal of postseason heartbreak. This is all to say they’ve been good, but not good enough. The acquisition part of the process needs a change.

What that change looks like can vary. Maybe it’s getting players with a slightly different hitting profile, getting away from all take-and-rake guys. Maybe it’s going back to the basics and adding steady left-handed power. Maybe–and most importantly, given their commitment to load management–it’s investing in the bench so that Rougned Odor, Tyler Wade, and Brett Gardner aren’t your best replacements (Gardner’s oft-resurgent 2021 notwithstanding). Maybe it’s signing or trading for reliable pithcers and not reclamation pieces. Regardless, the roster construction looks a little stale and inflexible at this point and there needs to be a tweak.

Another tweak? Remember who you are. You’re the Yankees. You literally print money. Act like it! Stop blushing at how much money you make and pour some of it back into the team like you did in the early 2000’s. The Yankee payroll is high, but relative to the league and relative to their own revenue, they still spend like it’s that time. To borrow from my own tweets:

I know that spending big sounds obvious and very “if the Boss were alive,” but I trust them (mostly) to spend more judiciously than they did in the past. My point is that big spending–Dodgers aside–is the new market inefficiency and the Yankees are uniquely positioned to exploit it. A bunch of teams are trying to lose. A bunch of teams aren’t trying too hard to win. There’s a bit of a vacuum there and the Yankees can and should fill it. Grabbing reclamation project or scrap heap projects is cute and can prove that you’re really smart and what not, but it only gets you so far, doesn’t it? And that’s if it even works with those players, which is very much not a guarantee.

Stop trying to be the smartest guy in the room. Stop trying to out Rays the Rays. Use your advantage.

On the application side of things, the fact that the Yankees just let their hitting coaches go shows that a change is, indeed, coming. The organization prides itself on its analytics department, which is great. The more information the better. But there’s clearly a disconnect in how that information is being delivered to players or executed by players. While the coaches and analytics department ultimately don’t play the games for the players, it’s disconcerting when Gleyber Torres takes a step back like he did, when Gary Sanchez is merely average instead of great, when DJ LeMahieu turns into a pumpkin, when a multitude of starters whose potential the Yankees were going to unlock–Michael Pineda, Nate Eovaldi, Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn, James Paxton–just doesn’t work out.

The Yankees have earned a degree of trust in their Process with literal decades of success. But that trust may be waning among the fanbase and that process may be too stuck in the past. To paraphrase Don Draper, change doesn’t have to be good or bad. It can just be. It might be time for the Process to change.

Thoughts before rubber game with Toronto

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The sun came up again this morning, meaning that the Yankees will play their biggest game of the season yet again tonight. Is everyone having fun yet? Stressed out? Just a little bit of nerves for all of you, I’m sure.

The Yankees magic number sits at three entering tonight’s rubber match against the Blue Jays. If they win out, not only will the Bombers clinch, but they’ll also ensure a home game in the Bronx for the Wild Card game. They could still get that without winning the next four games, of course. Here are the current standings:

Seattle eliminated Oakland last night, so the possibility of a five-way tie is no more. There’s still a chance for some madness with three or four-way ties now, and you can see how things could shake out by reading Jay Jaffe’s piece over at FanGraphs from yesterday. My head’s spinning from reading it, so I won’t even try to summarize. Just take a look for yourself. But before you do that, here are some thoughts entering tonight’s game with Toronto:

Game 154: Stanton and Cole lead Yanks to biggest win of year so far

That might be the best Yankees-Red Sox win probability graph I’ve seen. In the most important series of the year, the Yankees showed up to take game one with a commanding 8-3 victory behind a huge game from Giancarlo Stanton and Gerrit Cole. He said pressure is a privilege, and he came through tonight with that pressure. The Yankees have won 4 in a row and are now just a game back of the Sox for the first Wild Card spot. To the takeaways:

Game 151: Nestor and offense do just enough

After being outscored 22-4 this weekend against Cleveland to the point that we didn’t even bother recapping the games (just kidding, we were all just busy), the Yankees bounced back with a much needed 4-3 win. Of course a 4-0 lead in the 2nd turned into a 1 run nailbiter for most of the night, but a win’s a win. To the takeaways:

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