The Yankees Have Been Bronx Bummers So Far

The Yankees hit bottom this past weekend, not once but multiple times. Projected to be the AL’s best team, they’re instead the worst thus far, with a 5–10 record and a five-game losing streak. On Friday, they played so badly against the Rays that Yankee Stadium fans started hurling baseballs back onto the field, and afterwards, manager Aaron Boone dressed his players down in a closed-door meeting. In terms of outcomes, the stern lecture didn’t help, as the Yankees lost again on Saturday and Sunday, making it the first time they’ve been swept this year.

Friday night’s game saw the Yankees fall behind almost immediately, as opener Nick Nelson surrendered hits to the first three Rays he faced, capped by a two-run double by Brandon Lowe. He escaped without further damage, and Michael King entered to throw three shutout innings, but the Yankees managed just one hit in six innings against Rays starter Michael Wacha. When King departed, errors by Gio Urshela and Rougned Odor helped the Rays roll up four runs against Luis Cessa and then two against Lucas Luetge to pull ahead 8–0. The Yankees finally got on the board via a seventh-inning two-run homer by Giancarlo Stanton, but by the eighth, fans were disgusted enough to throw maybe a dozen baseballs on the field in the general vicinity of the Rays’ outfielders, halting play for a couple of minutes:

It was an embarrassing display that plays into stereotypes of the fan base’s sense of entitlement, but then again, Friday’s performance pushed many of the buttons that would anger every fan base. The 8–2 final score made it the Yankees’ most lopsided loss of the year, and along the way they set season worsts with three hits, 14 strikeouts, three errors, and three unearned runs. They stunk, and Boone let them hear about it, though neither he nor any of the players would elaborate on specifics. Said Boone afterwards:

“I think any time you have an offense like we do — and we expect a lot of ourselves — and it’s not clicking, usually, that has a look of being off or lacking energy, when you’re not swinging the bats like you’re capable of up and down. And then you’re going through some adversity and you’re having a tough week where you’re struggling to get it together and all of a sudden you misplay a couple plays and the game gets out of hand, that’s frustrating. But as we talk about all the time, we know adversity is coming for you at some point in the season. It’s knocking on our door right now, and we’ve got to answer it.”

“Boonie is so chill that when he gets angry, you know in that moment that when he does get upset, like, ‘Hey, we aren’t doing it the right way right now,’” said Clint Frazier. “He recognizes — and anyone — recognizes that we aren’t playing well, it should be addressed. And it was needed.”

While the Yankees made fewer mistakes on Saturday and Sunday, they scored just five runs in the two losses; they left five men on base in the first two innings of the former game, scoring just once in five innings against a wobbly Tyler Glasnow. The sweep marked their seventh straight series loss to the Rays dating back to September 24–25, 2019, a stretch that includes last year’s Division Series; the Yankees are 5–17 against the Rays in that span.

Through 15 games, this is the Yankees’ worst start since 1997:

Yankees’ Worst Starts Through 15 Games
Year W-L Final W-L Finish
1913 2-13 57-94 7
1966 3-12 70-89 10
1912 4-11 50-102 8
1925 4-11 69-85 7
1970 5-10 93-69 2
1972 5-10 79-76 4
1997 5-10 96-66 2, WC
2021 5-10
2016 6-9 84-78 4
2019 6-9* 103-59 1
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
* The Yankees additionally started the year 6-9 in 1930, 1940, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1982, 1985, 1989, 1991, and 2005.

The Yankees have climbed out of holes this deep before, though the last time they did was nearly a quarter-century ago. That said, they were only one win better at this juncture in 2019 and still finished first in the AL East with 103 wins. That team, though, had a +10 run differential despite its 6–9 record, while this one is at -9 — which, it should be pointed out, is just the fifth-worst in the AL and four runs better than the 8–8 Rays. They’re about a win shy via both their Pythagenpat and Baseruns winning percentages (.432 and .416, respectively), which is to say that they’ve played somewhat better than their record indicates, but they’ve got the league’s worst record in part because they’re 0–3 in one-run games.

So what’s ailing the Yankees, who at the outset of the season were projected for an AL-best 95.4 wins? First and foremost, they’re in the midst of a power outage and are scoring just 3.67 runs per game, second-to-last in the AL. Their .346 slugging percentage is in a virtual tie for the major league’s lowest, and while some of that is a function of their .210 batting average (the AL’s second-lowest, one point ahead of Cleveland), their .136 isolated power is 13th, and their 16 homers are 10th. For a team that ranked second last year in slugging (.447) and homers (94) and first in ISO (.200), that’s a nasty surprise.

Individually, only four Yankees are slugging above .400: Aaron Judge (..255/.321/.510), Gary Sánchez (.237/.356/.421), DJ LeMahieu (.286/.375/.411), and backup catcher Kyle Higashioka (.308/.438/.846 in just 16 PA). Judge, despite a couple days on the bench due to concerns about soreness in his left side leading to a longer absence, leads the team with four homers, and Stanton is second with three; nobody else has more than two. Where the Yankees had five of the AL’s top 30 players in wRC+ last year, with a mark of 133 or better in at least 100 PA, Judge (136) is their highest-ranked thus far, at just 31st.

At the other end of the spectrum, four regulars are slugging below .250: Aaron Hicks (.160/.236/.240), Gleyber Torres (.196/.317/.235), Jay Bruce (.118/.231/.235), and Frazier (.167/.250/.222), and neither Torres nor Frazier has homered yet. Since slugging 38 homers in 2019, Torres has just three and a .332 SLG in 216 PA. Frazier, who had supposedly won the starting left field job and would no longer need to be looking over his shoulder, has been losing time to Brett Gardner, starting just four of the team’s last eight games. Bruce, who had been playing first base in the absence of the injured Luke Voit, decided that he was no longer up to the task and announced his retirement on Sunday.

As a team, the Yankees haven’t been hitting the ball very hard: Their 7.9% barrel rate is tied for eighth in the AL, and their 38.7% hard-hit rate is 10th. They’ve been rather unlucky in the slugging department: By Statcast, their .418 xSLG is 16th in the majors, but they’ve fallen 72 points short of that, the fifth-largest gap. Some of that may be the function of cold temperatures (they’ve played three games that were 45 degrees or cooler at first pitch, tied for second in the majors). More of it likely has to do with Statcast expectations not being calibrated to the new ball, as all of MLB is 43 points short in xSLG, compared to five points ahead of expectations last year and 16 ahead in 2019. Even so, there’s quite a theme here:

Slugging Below Expectations
Player PA SLG xSLG Dif
Aaron Judge 56 .510 .624 -.114
Aaron Hicks 55 .240 .338 -.098
Gleyber Torres 60 .235 .332 -.097
DJ LeMahieu 64 .411 .487 -.076
Giancarlo Stanton 55 .373 .437 -.064
Gary Sánchez 45 .421 .485 -.064
Gio Urshela 55 .365 .425 -.060
Clint Frazier 40 .222 .241 -.019
Jay Bruce 39 .235 .234 .001
Brett Gardner 31 .320 .260 .060
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Minimum 30 plate appearances.

For context, it’s worth noting that Judge’s 114-point shortfall puts him in the 79th percentile among batters with at least 30 PA, and Urshela is in the 58th percentile; it’s not so much that these guys are at extremes as the uniformity of their wrong direction.

In a similarly unlucky vein, the Yankees’ 34-point shortfall in batting average is the third-largest in the majors, and their .259 BABIP is second-to-last in the AL. They’re still taking their walks (10.3%, second in the AL) and not striking out excessively (25.1%, seventh-highest in the league). Situationally, their .287 SLG with men in scoring position is last in the AL, but their .223 AVG is 10th (13 points better than their overall average), and their 90 wRC+ in that context is three points better than their overall mark, which ranks 12th in the AL. They’ve been slightly worse against lefties (84 wRC+) than righties (88), so it’s not as though they have glaring issues platoon-wise. For all the complaints about the dearth of left-handed power that led general manager Brian Cashman to hoard the bargain-basement likes of Bruce and Odor, they’re not replicating last year’s issue of struggling (relatively speaking) to hit lefties (97 wRC+ versus 122 against righties).

Then there’s the defense, which is 11th in the AL in defensive efficiency (.684, 10 points below league average) and last in Defensive Runs Saved (-7). The infield in particular is a mess right now. Torres is already shaky at shortstop, with -14 DRS in 1,096.1 innings since the start of 2019. With Bruce’s inadequate production at first base, LeMahieu has been playing there lately while Odor plays second — a significant step backwards based upon their respective bodies of work even before considering the latter’s .125/.192/.250 line in 26 PA. LeMahieu is likely to continue getting looks at first, though lefty-swinging Mike Ford, who hit for a 134 wRC+ in 163 PA in 2019 but cratered to a 36 wRC+ in 84 PA last year, is a candidate for promotion from the alternate site.

The loss of Voit has left a void, as his .610 SLG and 22 homers led the team last year. After undergoing surgery to repair a torn mensicus in his left knee on March 29, he has begun taking groundballs and will start swinging a bat on Tuesday. At best, he could be back by early to mid-May, so the Yankees are going to need others to step up is his absence.

The Yankees’ problems aren’t limited to the lineup. A rotation that features three members who combined for a single inning last year has done little to answer the questions that come with that. Gerrit Cole has been stellar (1.82 ERA, 0.95 FIP), but the other four starters (Jordan Montgomery, Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, and Domingo Germán) and Nelson have combined for a 6.38 ERA and 6.13 FIP; all have FIPs of 5.10 or higher. Montgomery, the only one with an ERA below 6.10, is also the only one besides Cole to put together a quality start, and that came on April 5 against the Orioles. Nelson’s opening act aside, seven of the team’s 14 starts — all of Kluber’s and Taillon’s — have lasted fewer than five innings, with the starters allowing three or more runs in five of them. Given that the team has somehow scored just one run in the first inning of games this year while batting .167/.224/.222 in the opening frame, that’s a lot of holes to dig out of.

The bullpen, despite the loss of Zack Britton to surgery to remove a bone chip in his left elbow, has been the majors’ most effective in terms of ERA (2.43), FIP (2.77) and WAR (1.4). Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, and Jonathan Loaisiga have been reassuringly stifling. King has thrown nine innings — more than Taillon (8.1) or Germán (7.2) — of three-hit shutout ball in his two stints, both under opener/primary conditions, though both times he’s pitched were followed by tickets to the alternate site, as Cashman churns the roster. It’s fair to say that the bullpen has picked up enough of the slack that run prevention has been less of a problem than scoring, but with Loaisiga, Green, and Luetge all on pace to throw at least 100 innings, this group can’t continue to do so much of the heavy lifting. Giving regular turns to King and/or Deivi García might help shake things up.

There’s no getting around how badly the Yankees have played thus far, and the hot start by the Red Sox (10–6) only exacerbates their struggles. Even so, Boston is the only team in the AL East with a record above .500 at this writing, and the Yankees still project as the AL’s strongest team. They’re not going to get anywhere without playing like it, though.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 years ago

I feel like we have been talking about the risks the Yankees have been taking with their starting rotation all offseason, but then I went back to look for articles on it and I couldn’t find it. I know someone wrote them. Where are they?

In any case, Kluber and German look like guys who…haven’t pitched in a while. It does look like Taillon and Montgomery have gotten a bit unlucky with home runs but when four out of your five starting pitchers have had subpar results it’s not that’s crazy to think you’ll be losing many more games than you win.

Left of Centerfield
2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Was there an article on it? I know myself and other commenters have pointed out the risk, which is likely on the articles when they signed Kluber and traded for Taillon. And there was some discussion when the Yankees rotation was ranked 3rd in baseball, which even the author of the article (Ben Clemens) seemed confused by.

2 years ago

Yes–that was one. And then there was an article where Dan noted that there was a world where Gerrit Cole gets hurt and the whole pitching staff falls apart. That hasn’t happened, and so only most of the pitching staff has fallen apart.

Maybe I am confusing it for the commenters. I just know it has been discussed a lot here and it’s clearly a big factor that probably deserves a follow up.

Left of Centerfield
2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Don’t remember the Dan article. But I do know that I pointed out multiple times that it didn’t make sense to me to take on risky pitchers when there was already a lot of uncertainty about the rotation.

2 years ago

Yeah, it was pretty subtle, probably because it was covering ~10 teams in brief. Maybe I’m thinking of something else.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

As a Yankee fan the only one I’m worried about is Corey Kluber. I think it was a good gamble but unless something changes, he may not get the job done. For what is expected from Jordan Montgomery and Domingo German I think they will be pretty decent starters. So far Taillon has looked fairly good. I believe Jordan Montgomery is a much better than average starting pitcher in the American League. The offence has red flags all over it. The only ones I’m not worried about are DJ and Gio Urshela. I’m quite concerned with Gleyber and I’ve never thought Frazier was a good hitter. Giancarlo is what he is. Huge power, way too many strikeouts and oft injured. Gary Sanchez can disappear and I’d be happy. To me he has very little of offer the team.

2 years ago

Man, the comments on that… “you’re relying on WHO to do WHAT?”

Red Sox have been better than expected in the rotation, though.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Not really that much better. Eduardo Rodriquez is a stud of the first order, Eovaldi is good when healthy and the other guys haven’t been anything special. Compared to the Weber’s, Hall’s and Hart’s of last year this group looks like Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz to me.

2 years ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

Hey, Eovaldi has given the Red Sox a whole bunch of really, really good innings, Tanner Houck’s been decent-to-good, and Perez has been okay too.

But there’s still plenty of time for it all to fall apart, so perhaps it is unwise for them to get their hopes up.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

HR allowed is actually the only way to judge pitchers. Literally nothing else matters. There is no luck when it comes to HR. Pure pitcher skill. Yes, you can actually discard everything else.

2 years ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

It’s definitely pitcher attributable but has less predictive validity for the future, potentially because it’s a relatively rare event. So maybe luck isn’t the right word, but it’s not guaranteed to continue.

2 years ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

HRs allowed is directly related to fly balls allowed. So, both ground ball rate and, of course, K rate are more important.

2 years ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

Hitters can get lucky so yes there is luck to it. This can be dependent also on batter HR/FB, launch angle and average distance