Yesterday was a very busy day in Yankeeland. The busiest it will get until the Winter Meetings, most likely, or until they make a big splash in free agency. First, the Yankees re-signed Aaron Boone to a three-year contract with a fourth-year option. Then, after that was announced, Brian Cashman and Boone both addressed the media for their end-of-year press conferences.
Lots going on! Much of it was significant, too. Let’s get to some thoughts, shall we?
1. The Boone Decision: Well, the Yankees have their manager. As I noted yesterday, this was both unsurprising and uninspiring. The longer this process dragged on, the more likely it was that Boone was returning – and that was before the Yankees announced the coaching staff changes last week. Many of us hoped for a different outcome, but Boone returning was always the most likely scenario. Whether we like it or not, the Yankees clearly believe Boone is the right guy for the job. In that sense, it was very unsurprising to hear that he is returning for three (possibly four) more seasons at the helm.
Still, that does not mean the decision was inspiring. Quite the contrary, in fact. I feel pretty strongly that bringing Boone back was a mistake, even with the caveat that it is really, really hard to honestly evaluate managers from where we sit. There’s a lot to the job, and we only see a tiny fraction of it. But what’s the fun in that? Here’s my attempt at a fair overview of Boone’s strengths and weaknesses.
- Holistic Performance: Believe it or not, the Yankees are the third-winningest team in baseball under Boone’s tenure. They’ve twice won 100 games (2018, 2019) and have made the playoffs all four seasons he’s been skipper. Overall, the Yankees are 328-218 (.601) since 2018, which logs just behind the Dodgers (.634) and Astros (.612). That’s pretty good! It bests Tampa (.597), Boston (.564) and Atlanta (.569), all of whom are generally considered contenders. That is a pretty good run. From the Yankees’ side, you can see why they like Boone. If they believe the postseason is a crapshoot (they do), then they’re confident the balls will break the right way soon.
- Internal Communication: As has been repeated over and over again, the Yankees consider Boone a top-tier clubhouse communicator, and they value that. It also seems clear that key members of the team, including but especially Aaron Judge, have their faith in him. Both of these areas are important, if again uninspiring. We can’t see them, so it’s hard to say what merit there is here. Personally, I’m not convinced that “communicating” is as important as it’s made out to be. The Yanks obviously disagree and were willing to move on from a proven leader in Girardi over it, though, so who am I? Regardless, this is obviously a big point in Boone’s favor from a Yankee POV.
- Holistic Bullpen Use: I know, I know, but bear with me a second. If you look at the leverage index since 2018, it’s hard to quibble (in the aggregate) with Boone’s choices. He tends to use the right pitchers in the right spots from the 30,000 foot level. Among relievers with at least 40 IP under his tenure, the most likely to be used in a high-leverage spot are Aroldis Chapman, Jonathan Loaisiga, Wandy Peralta, Chad Green, and David Robertson. (Zack Britton is just outside the top 5.) Peralta is a weird inclusion, but one I’ll charitably excuse given the fact literally every inning was high leverage in 2021. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s a generally good proxy for managerial performance.
- October Performances: When Aaron Boone said that the American League “caught up” to the Yankees, it was a damning statement because it was true. The overall numbers are good, but the Yankees are trending downwards. There is almost no doubt about that. Under Boone’s leadership, the Yankees have been eliminated by the Red Sox, Astros, Rays, and Red Sox. That is absolutely unacceptable and it is a big reason why fans are so frustrated. The Yankees have often looked overmatched, out-managed, and outplayed in those series, too. I know there’s some element of chance involved in all four series, but it is still not great. The Yankees have championship aspirations, but they haven’t been able to clear the American League gauntlet. It is not a good look, and some of that has to fall on the manager. (In fact, he hasn’t even been able to replicate the 2017 success.)
- Sloppy Play/Lack of Urgency: The Yankees sure are annoying to watch, aren’t they? They are top 5 in errors under Boone, and they make a ton of routine, fundamental mistakes. We all know how many outs they ran into this year on the bases. And we’ve seen mistakes like that time and again under Boone’s leadership. I think this is the fairest of critiques. The issues started in 2018, right when he started, and have not improved. The best teams do not make stupid mistakes constantly, but you cannot say that about the Yankees. I think this ties into an overall lack of urgency that starts with Boone. The Yankees always manage for tomorrow, and they were doing it as late as the last regular season series this year – when they weren’t yet clinched for the playoffs. That impacts bullpen management, load management, and I think overall team intensity. It is a real issue. That, too, lies a lot on Boone.
- Key Players Have Regressed: When Boone took over the team, he took over an insurgent core that looked poised to win several titles. That has not happened, and nearly all of the non-Judge players have actually regressed. We’ve discussed this at length here, so no need to get into it in depth. (I will say that Luke Voit, Gio Urshela, and others are success stories that counter Gleyber and Gary’s regression.) We’ll see what happens when there’s a new coaching staff underneath him, too.
2. Organizational Complacency: Okay, with that out of the way, let’s move on from Boone. He’s the guy here now so there’s no point in wringing our hands over what I assume we all think was a dumb choice. What the Yankees do next will matter a lot. Cashman said yesterday that the Yankees are not as contact-oriented or athletic as they’d like. Now, we can read a lot into that if we want. It could almost read as a precursor to a roster overhaul. I don’t think that’s coming, though, even if they will obviously make adjustments to the team.
The underlying point here is what concerns me. The Yankees built this team basically on that exact philosophical foundation. Strikeouts don’t matter, walks and home runs are what really counts, and it’s fine to have an all right-handed lineup filled with similar style hitters. Philosophically, I don’t disagree with any of those in a vacuum. But there’s obviously a pendulum here, and the Yankees have likely swung too far in the other direction.
I don’t begrudge the Gallo trade – he was, honestly, the best player available – so I don’t think that’s a fair knock on the front office. They had to do what they had to do in 2021. That’s out the window now though. The Yankees are on the record as criticizing their own roster construction, and they’ve said what many, many fans have said. Now that they’ve agreed, I think they’ll have to make some moves to show that they can put their money where their mouth is. Many fans and analysts accuse the Yankees of arrogance and complacency. I’m not sure how fair either are – after all, I thought the Yankees would win something like 105 games this year – but they’ve publicly put their stake in the ground as a front office. I think they have to back it up now.
That’s especially true following the Boone hire, which they knew would agitate fans. They’re not stupid. Boone is persona non grata around the Yankee internet right now, fairly or unfairly, and they brought him back anyway and talked about shoddy roster construction in the presser. If they’re not willing to shake it up a bit somehow – we’ll detail how that’s possible soon – then there are likely going to be some ugly scenes in the Bronx next April if the Yankees get off to a slow start.
3. The Obvious Hole: Cashman said it, and we’ve all known it for a while: the Yankees need to improve at shortstop. It’s a no-brainer. Fortunately, there are three excellent shortstops on the market this year in Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and Trevor Story. I’d personally prefer Correa (I know, I know) but I’d be fine with any of the three. Getting into the pros and cons of those choices doesn’t really matter though. What I want to convey is the urgency with which the Yankees need to pursue their chosen target.
While their “we don’t know the budget but we’ll spend” rhetoric is infuriating, it’s not worth caring about. They’ve reset the luxury tax, publicly identified a clear need, and are now entering a free agency period with obvious solutions to that need. That sounds like the 2019 offseason to me, when they went hard after Cole. I honestly expect the same thing to happen this year with one of the big three shortstops.
I have been critical of the Yankees spending, and it’s fair to be, but we all did the whole pre-mad routine in 2019 with Cole. “You’ll get [inferior pitcher] and like it”, went the jokes on Twitter. Well, we got Cole. The bigger issue was that Cole was the only move they made that offseason. I fully expect one of the shortstops to be in pinstripes next year. It’s what they do around that move – be it getting a more reliable 1B, bolstering the rotation, finding a replacement at catcher, trading Joey Gallo, etc. – that will be most illuminating. It’s going to be an interesting offseason, that’s for sure.