"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Monthly Archives: June 2021

Hello, Darkness, My Old Friend

I think I’ve decided that this is it. This is the team we have.

In the three weeks since I last opined in this space, the team has changed and changed back again, teasing us into optimism with flashes of quality play but then falling back into their old ways, cruelly reminding us that we should’ve known better.

Aaron Judge continues to have a fine season. He’s been the one truly consistent Yankee in the lineup, but in a season which needs 2017 Judge, his consistency has been hardly noticeable. Giancarlo Stanton will have a week here or there during which it’s hard to imagine why anyone would ever pitch to him, but then he’ll spend the next week flailing at sliders six inches off the plate. Gleyber Torres has seemed so lost that I’ve caught myself wondering if a week or two in Scranton might do him some good.

Oh, but there’s been good news. Although D.J. LeMaheiu spent the first sixty games hitting a hundred points less than he did in last year’s sixty-game season, he’s been showing some signs of life recently, hitting closer to .300 in June. And if I had told you a month ago that Gary Sánchez would be the team’s best hitter at this point, would you ever have believed me? The Kracken has been slashing at .300/.372/.686 this month, featuring six doubles and seven homers; he had three doubles and six homers in April and May combined.

So as we heard several times this weekend from the YES broadcast crew, it’s been two steps forward and two steps back for the Yankees for a while now. That’s works fine for salsa dancing, but when you’re trying to make up ground in the suddenly-deep-again American League East, not so much.

All of this made this weekend’s series with the Red Sox even more critical than such games usually are. Winning two of three or — dare to dream — a sweep would have erased an awful lot of the frustration of the past few months, but when the Yankees dropped close ones on Friday (5-3) and Saturday (4-2), Sunday suddenly felt like a must-win game. Thankfully, Gerrit Cole was on the mound.

But if you’re reading this, you know what happened. Making his first Fenway start in pinstripes, Cole did not deliver. His first pitch was rocketed over the Green Monster by Kiké Hernández, Alex Verdugo doubled a few pitches after that, and two batters later Rafael Devers launched an 0-2 pitch 470 feet into the seats. There were still eight innings to go, but the game was over.

And you know the strangest part of the whole afternoon? I sat there and watched the whole thing. When Aaron Judge hit a two-run homer in the sixth to cut the lead to 6-2, I found myself getting hopeful. When the Yankees loaded the bases with one out in the seventh and LeMahieu and Judge due up, I started thinking about what a big win this could be.

But when my optimism was repaid with a 9-2 loss and I was forced to look back over an abysmal nine innings, I finally allowed myself to answer the question I posed in this space three weeks ago.

Yes. This is the team we have.

I’ve never really subscribed to the theory that teams built around power can’t win in the postseason, so the structure of this team never bothered me. After all, if you have the major league leaders in batting (LeMahieu) and home runs (Luke Voit), and then you add Judge, Stanton, and Sánchez, you’re obviously going to score a lot of runs. Yet only two teams in the American League, the Tigers and Orioles, have scored fewer runs than the Bronx Bombers, and if you watched the three Fenway games, it isn’t hard to see why.

The Red Sox outscored the Yankees 18-7, but the hit and walk totals were much closer — 38-35. The Yankees had plenty of opportunities to score runs, but they weren’t able to. We’ve been told that runs batted in is a meaningless stat in this era of statistical enlightenment, but here’s something that is enlightening. Aaron Judge leads the Yankees with 42 RBIs. Heading into Sunday’s game his then forty RBIs ranked 54th in baseball. I have neither the time nor the inclination to research this, but I’d guess it’s been decades since the Yankees’ leading RBI man ranked that low. (For comparison’s sake, Rafael Devers and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., are tied for the lead with 68.)

If we were to rewind the season back to April and play it again, I’m not sure what would happen. If we were to simulate the season a few thousand times, exactly how many times would we see a team this talented look so similar to the Orioles or the Tigers or the Royals? (For the record, the number crunchers over at fivethirtyeight.com haven’t lost faith in our Yankees. Their statistical models see the Bombers as the fifth best team in baseball, but the same model also projects them to 87-75 and gives them only a 36% chance to make the playoffs, which feels about right.)

But we aren’t living in a simulation, and we can’t turn back the clock. Today the Yankees lost in embarrassing fashion, their sixth straight loss to the Red Sox, and they sit in fourth place at 40-37, six and a half games behind Boston. It doesn’t get much more real than that.

The Truth Hits Everybody

The Yankees trailed the Red Sox by a run heading into the bottom of the ninth inning on Sunday night, but there was initially no reason to believe that they had, as Michael Kay is fond of saying, a rally in their bones. Things looked worse after D.J. LeMahieu grounded out meekly to second to open the inning, but then Aaron Judge walked and Gleyber Torres drove him home with a rocketed double down the line, and suddenly the game was tied at four. There was hope.

Gio Urshella whiffed for the second out, but after the Red Sox issued an intentional pass to Gary Sánchez, Rougned Odor came to the plate with a chance to end the game with a base hit. Torres managed to increase the pressure by stealing third base during the at bat, and when Boston closer Matt Barnes wasn’t able to bend a full-count curveball into the strike zone, Odor flipped his bat down onto the plate and turned towards first, delivering what should’ve been a bases loaded opportunity for Clint Frazier.

But home plate umpire Gabe Morales called the pitch a strike and the inning was over.

To be clear, this wasn’t a ball on the edge of the plate that could’ve gone either way. Barnes’s curveball had started wide and had never sniffed the strike zone, a fact clear to both the naked eye and the robotic. It was widely reported that the ball had been 4.55 inches off the plate. Had Odor swung and missed he’d have been chastised for chasing ball four.

Frustrations from a week of futility spilled over immediately as the Yankee dugout erupted. If ever there was a time for a manager to get himself ejected this was the moment, but somehow Aaron Boone remained calm as all those around him lost their heads, most notably third base coach Phil Nevin. That called third strike had not only thwarted a potential game-winning rally, it had offered proof of what was already clear to see. Xander Bogaerts’s two-run double in the top of the tenth stands as the game winner, but that’s like saying Oedipus wasn’t truly ruined until he gouged out his eyes. The fates had conspired against these Yankees.

But if you’ve paying attention, you know that’s a foolish way of looking at things. If the Yankees had become the juggernauts the world expected they’d be and were enjoying a seven-game division lead, they could be excused for dwelling on the misfortune of an umpire’s mistake. It would be understandable that they’d tie the outcome of a game to the temporary myopia of Gabe Morales. But you and I know the truth.

This Yankee offense is historically bad, and it no longer matters whether it’s a team-wide slump, an injury-induced malaise, or something as simple as a coin landing heads 54 times in a row.

Here’s Exhibit A — the historical production of the expected lineup, with the slash lines (AVG/OBA/SLG) from each hitter’s best season, his average season, and (aside from Judge) the trainwreck of 2021. Take a look if you dare.

Player Best Average 2021
Sánchez   ’17: 278/345/531   234/321/493   210/331/384
Voit   ’20: 277/338/610   269/360/514   182/280/250
LeMahieu   ’20: 364/421/590   302/356/425   253/335/321
Urshella   ’19: 314/355/534   272/321/430   269/314/420
Torres   ’19: 278/337/535   271/342/475   272/351/364
Frazier   ’20: 267/394/511   241/325/440   185/305/318
Hicks   ’18: 248/366/467   233/330/399   194/294/333
Judge   ’17: 284/422/627   275/391/556   295/398/540
Stanton   ’17: 281/376/631   267/358/543   252/326/465

It wouldn’t have been reasonable to expect or even hope for all nine players to stay healthy and produce like the far left column in 2021 (that team would win 125-130 games), but I’m sure Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone were counting on the middle column or better. As it turns out, they haven’t gotten close to that. Take a closer look…

  • Not a single player is anywhere close to his career best. In fact, here’s the average differential: -48/-47/-182.
  • Five different players (Sánchez, Voit, LeMahieu, Torres, and Frazier) are slugging more than one hundred points south of their career averages.
  • Two of those players, Luke Voit and D.J. LeMaheiu, somehow have slugging percentages that are lower than their on base percentages.
  • Of the 27 comparable statistics (nine players x BA/OBP/SLG), only two players are exceeding one of the slash numbers from their career best season: Gleyber Torres’s on base percentage (.351|.337) and Aaron Judge’s batting average (.295|.284).

And so even if you want to blame Sunday night’s loss on an umpire’s interpretation of a single pitch thrown in the bottom of the ninth inning, the much larger concern is that during a seven-game homestand against the Rays and the Red Sox, the Yankees went 2-5 while scoring just 22 runs. But really, even that is a minor concern. Here are some things the Bronx Bombers should really be worried about:

  • Only four teams in baseball have scored fewer runs than the Yankees.
  • Only five teams have a lower slugging percentage.
  • No team has hit fewer doubles.
  • No team has hit into more double plays.
  • No team has made more outs on the bases.
  • No team has seen more runners thrown out at the plate.
  • No team has taken fewer extra bases.

Since April we’ve been hearing that these things will turn around, that players will begin to hit like what we see on the backs of their baseball cards, but we’re sixty games into the season. In the old days managers were often criticized for sitting on their hands and waiting for a three-run homer, but this team is waiting for so much more than that.

What if it never happens?

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver