Well, this is going just as we expected: the Yankees have won 9 of their last 12 games, even after a COVID-19 outbreak sidelined some of the most important players on the roster. The Scranton Wilkes-Barre
RailBirds Yankees have really stepped up – and very well may have saved the season. That was just the bare minimum, though. The Yankees now face their toughest and most important stretch of the season.
Suffice to say, I have some thoughts. Let’s get to ’em.
1. Setting the Stakes: So, yeah. The Yanks are now on the road, where they’ll play four in Boston and three in Tampa Bay. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say it will make or break their season – or at least their chances at a division title. If they go on a tear, they’re right back in it. If they get demolished, their chances are all but gone. And if they tread water, well, they still have a chance, but they made it a whole hell of a lot more difficult.
The Yankees currently sit 7 games behind Boston (6 in the loss column) for first place of the division. They’re 6 games behind Tampa (5 in the loss column) for second place. This stretch will be crucial. (They’ll still have a chance in the Wild Card, where they’re the team just outside the dance, 3.5 games behind Oakland, though it’s just 2 in the loss column.) Their playoff odds, per FanGraphs, stand at 43.4% going into the big stretch.
That will change a lot over the next week.Unfortunately, the Yankees will at least start the weekend still playing shorthanded. Aaron Judge won’t be back until at least Sunday, nor will Gio Urshela or Kyle Higashioka. (It’s theoretically possible that they’ll return sooner, at least the vaccinated among them – but we’ve heard nothing to that effect so far.) There is some good news, though: the Yanks could get both Jonathan Loaisiga and Nestor Cortes Jr. back this weekend.
Loaisiga rejoined the team on Tuesday, threw on flat ground, tossed a bullpen, and is expected to be activated for the weekend. Boone also hinted, earlier this week, that Cortes could also return against Boston. It doesn’t solve the roster crunch – I’d prefer the Yankees attack be at full strength right now – but it’s better than nothing.
Finally, the Yanks’ rotation is well-positioned going into this stretch. There won’t be any former Oriole reclamation projects, bullpen games, or fliers, barring injury. The starters line up as such:
- Thursday, July 22 (@ BOS): Jordan Montgomery
- Friday, July 23 (@ BOS): Gerrit Cole
- Saturday, July 24 (@ BOS): Jameson Taillon
- Sunday, July 25 (@ BOS): Domingo Germán
- Tuesday, July 27 (@ TB): Jordan Montgomery
- Wednesday, July 28 (@ TB): Gerrit Cole
- Thursday, July 29 (@ TB): Jameson Taillon
That is good news. Cole, Taillon, and Montgomery are clearly the Yanks’ best, most-reliable starters right now. (If that’s a good thing is a different question.) They’ll be taking the mound in 6 of the 7 biggest games of the season. Can’t ask for much more than that. Now they need to go out and perform. Wouldn’t hurt to get a 2006 or 2009 mid-summer sweep of Boston going. Is that too much to ask?
2. Assessing the State of the Bullpen: Anyway, the state of the bullpen is a lot less rosy. The arms, down Loaisiga and Cortes, have really been taxed of late. Here’s where things stand for the 9 guys currently in the Yanks’ pen:
Yep, now that’s a ‘pen that’s thrown a lot. The Yankees are likely going to need quite a bit of length from Montgomery tonight. Based on the way the Yankees use their pen – more on that in a second – it seems as though Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton will both be unavailable for tonight’s matchup. They’ve both thrown in 3 of the last 4 days, and 3 consecutive games. There is no way that they’ll be available tonight, though Chad Green almost certainly will be.
There’s not a lot of MiLB help that could come up and presumably make a difference, either. Their bullpen depth is pretty thinned out by injuries overall. Who they’ve got is who they’ve got right now, at least until Jonathan Loaisiga and Nestor Cortes return.
Gosh do the Yankees miss Loaisiga right now, huh? His absence is a huge reason why the big guns in the ‘pen are so taxed. I’d also argue it’s behind the titanic meltdown last week in Houston, too. (Now that’s a game I bet the Yanks wish they could have back.) Let’s hope he returns tonight. I’ll feel a lot better about the state of things knowing Loaisiga is there to soak up some high-leverage innings alongside Green.
3. Be More Flexible, Please: Now, all of that said, I do want to go on a bit of a mini-rant. The way the Yankees treat their bullpen arms is starting to really get on my nerves. (It is also very possible that it’s just the weight of a pandemic and a season plus of miserable Yankee baseball.) Derek covered this in the takeaways last night, but I was confounded – absolutely confounded – by the way Aaron Boone utilized Nick Nelson and the pen overall. Bringing Nelson in when he did in the 8th inning after a bit of a Britton meltdown did not make any sense. I’m sorry, but it just didn’t.
I understand the rationale. Look at the chart I highlighted above, plus the fact that they’re heading into this important stretch. Boone and co. clearly and understandably did not want to head into Boston without any of their big relievers ready to go. That’s what would have happened if they put Green into the fray last night. No doubt about it. You want to avoid that, especially as the manager.
But that’s not a total excuse. They pulled Britton despite the fact what the Yanks needed more than anything else was a double play – and that Britton had induced several grounders. Nelson, predictably, had a meltdown. For me, once he went to Britton, he should have stuck with him. I like my chances of escaping that jam – and therefore winning the game – way, way better with him on the hill than Nick Nelson. And Britton is unavailable tonight anyway, so it doesn’t change the future projection.
I view this as a function of the Yankees’ centrally-planned economy. It made sense in both 2018 and 2019, when the Yankees were a 100-win juggernaut. They were never in jeopardy of missing the postseason. Plan ahead, my friends. Save those arms. That’s what a smart team does! The 2021 Yankees are not a juggernaut, though, and they need to win every single game they play. That may mean having to push relievers a bit more than they’re normally comfortable to lock down wins, especially over the next week.
If the Yankees blow games because they’re using sub-optimal arms in Fenway or the Trop in high-leverage spots just to avoid an appearance in 3 consecutive games, I am going to be cranky as hell. It’s just a warning. I think this situation calls for borderline postseason urgency, and I hope the Yankees are brave enough to take the plunge if necessary. To be clear, I’m not suggesting it’s an easy balance to strike. But I do think the team needs to be a bit more flexible than they’ve been lately.
4. Zack Britton is a Mess: Okay, so now that I got the irrational rant out of the way, let’s return to the world of sound analysis. Zack Britton is a disaster right now. It’s killing the Yankees and making Aaron Boone’s job much harder. It is also complicating their ability to push relievers. They clearly need him to get it together, and fast.
I think there are genuine reasons to worry about Britton, at least right now. Look at his year-over-year ground ball rates, per Statcast:
It has plummeted to the lowest levels of his career. Given that this is Britton’s bread and butter, it’s concerning! At the same time, though, this is still a very, very high GB rate. It’s all relative with Britton. That’s the benefit of regressing from a high level.
On the other hand, I think there are actually reasons to be concerned about this. It looks like the quality of Britton’s stuff has declined. The first sign is that his velocity is down year-over-year. Pretty significantly, in fact. Last year, Britton averaged about 95 miles-per-hour on his sinker, which is enough to be dominant. This year, he’s down to just 92 miles-per-hour, and is sitting in the 91-92 range fairly consistently. This is a pretty big difference.
Secondly, his spin rates are down a bit. Not a ton, to be clear, but they are down on both his sinker and slider – a part of a broader decline, too. I’m not sure what to make of this. Britton has barely pitched this year, and has certainly not had a routine build-up to his season. It’s probably unfair to expect him to be at his full power right now. What I do know is that this is worth watching, because we’re seeing two bad trends:
- His overall ground ball rate is declining to its lowest levels right as…
- The quality of his stuff appears to be declining.
Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to put one and one together there. Still, it’s too early to draw conclusions. Just something to watch. And the Yanks had better hope that he gets it together, and fast.
5. The Return of Gleyber Torres: Okay, I do want to end on a positive note. Over the 12 game stretch in which the Yanks have gone 9-3, Gleyber Torres – yes, Gleyber Torres – has been their best hitter. With 40 plate appearances, he’s had the 4th-most PA on the team behind Giancarlo Stanton, DJ LeMahieu, and Gary Sánchez. His line is by far the best, though. He’s hitting .257/.333/.571 (144 wRC+) with a 10% walk rate and 17.5% K rate in that stretch.
Most importantly, 5 of his 9 hits have been of the extra-base variety. He has 3 homers in his last 4 games, with a double sprinkled in there for good measure. And he’s doing it to all fields. Check out this spray chart, which really, really highlights what a small sample this is:
Still, that’s good stuff. Hitting the ball to all fields, including opposite-field power. I’ve been very, very concerned with Gleyber. It’s fair to be, honestly, but I do think he’s a much better hitter than he’s been in 2021. Let’s hope that this recent trend, which is nothing more than a welcome sight for sore eyes at this point, turns into a revitalization of the season for the middle-infielder. That would go a long way in helping the Yankees keep this ship turned around.