The Yankees Need a Remake, But Their Flexibility Is Limited

After finishing first or second in in the American League in scoring in each of the past four seasons, the 2021 Yankees were supposed to be yet another iteration of the Bronx Bombers. Yet this time around, they scored just 4.39 runs per game, good only for 10th in the league. When they lined up for their do-or-die appearance in the Wild Card Game behind Gerrit Cole, they did so with a lineup featuring just four hitters with a wRC+ of 100 or better, two of whom didn’t join the organization until the trade deadline. After an abrupt exit from the playoffs at the hands of the Red Sox, the question of where the Yankees go from here looms particularly large, but for all the “if the Boss were alive” shrieking from some quarters — fans and media hot-take artistes alike — a radical overhaul of the roster this winter doesn’t appear likely.

For years, the Yankees have relied upon a model of power and patience for their offense, accepting the high strikeout rates that come with it as the cost of doing business. The model worked well enough when juiced baseballs were flying out of parks at record rates; they set single-season team home run records in both 2017 and ’18 and blew past those marks in ’19 even as the Twins edged them by a single dinger.

The Decline of the Yankees’ Offense
Season R/G Rk HR Rk K% Rk AVG Rk OBP Rk SLG Rk wRC+ Rk WAR Rk
2017 5.30 2 241 1 21.8% 10 .262 3 .339 2 .447 3 109 2 29.2 2
2018 5.25 2 267 1 22.7% 11 .249 8 .329 4 .451 2 112 1 31.4 3
2019 5.82 1 306 2 23.0% 7 .267 4 .339 3 .490 3 117 2 32.8 2
2020 5.25 1 94 2 21.7% 3 .247 6 .342 1 .447 2 117 1 9.9 2
2021 4.39 10 222 3 24.5% 12 .237 13 .322 5 .407 7 101 7 18.2 7
Rk = American League rank

Amid the backdrop of the de-juiced ball, the Yankees still placed third in the league in homers, but their overall offense was far less potent. Where the major league rate of home runs per plate appearance declined by about 5.5% relative to 2020, theirs dipped by 12%, and that’s with a reasonably full season from Giancarlo Stanton, who clubbed 35 homers in 139 games after being limited to 23 games in 2020. Even with that rebound, injuries deprived the team of some big bats and led to inferior replacements.

Yankees Primary Position Players 2020 vs. 2021
Player PA 20 AVG/OBP/SLG 20 wRC+ 20 PA 21 AVG/OBP/SLG 21 wRC+ 21 wRC+ Dif
Gary Sánchez 178 .147/.253/.365 69 440 .204/.307/.423 99 30
Tyler Wade 105 .170/.288/.307 69 145 .268/.354/.323 92 23
Miguel Andújar 65 .242/.277/.355 71 162 .253/.284/.383 81 10
Aaron Judge 114 .257/.336/.554 140 633 .287/.373/.544 148 8
Giancarlo Stanton 94 .250/.387/.500 143 579 .273/.354/.516 137 -6
Gleyber Torres 160 .243/.356/.368 106 516 .259/.331/.366 94 -12
Brett Gardner 158 .223/.354/.392 111 461 .222/.327/.362 93 -18
Kyle Higashioka 48 .250/.250/.521 102 211 .181/.246/.389 71 -31
Gio Urshela 174 .298/.368/.490 133 442 .267/.301/.419 96 -37
Luke Voit 234 .277/.338/.61 153 241 .239/.328/.437 111 -42
Aaron Hicks 211 .225/.379/.414 124 126 .194/.294/.333 76 -48
Clint Frazier 160 .267/.394/.511 149 218 .186/.317/.317 82 -67
DJ LeMahieu 216 .364/.421/.590 177 679 .268/.349/.362 100 -77
Rougned Odor 361 .202/.286/.379 83 n/a
Joey Gallo 228 .160/.303/.404 95 n/a
Anthony Rizzo 200 .249/.34/.428 113 n/a

A wrist injury limited Hicks to 32 games, and while Gardner adequately covered center field defensively, he only reached a 93 wRC+ thanks to a second-half rally (a 75 wRC+ before the All-Star break, 111 after). Voit, who led the majors with 22 homers in 2020, played just 68 games after tearing the meniscus of his left knee in March followed by surgery and two subsequent trips to the injured list for inflammation, plus another for an oblique strain. Moving LeMahieu from second base to first opened up too much playing time for Odor, a scrapheap pickup who had fizzled in Texas. The puzzling health-related struggles of Frazier — blurred vision, dizziness, and other vertigo-like symptoms, perhaps related to his 2018 concussion — limited him to 66 games after last season’s breakout. Among the other eight players tried in left field (including Stanton in his first outfield experience since late 2019), Gardner hit for a lifeless 68 wC+ in 93 PA in that spot, and Andujar for a 99 wRC+ in 140 PA there (and worse outside it). Gallo, a deadline acquisition, dipped from a 139 wRC+ in Texas to 109 in 190 PA as the Yankees’ left fielder (and worse overall).

More enigmatic were the struggles of LeMahieu, Torres, and Urshela. LeMahieu’s ability to go oppo to Yankee Stadium’s short porch fueled career-best power numbers as he placed in the top five of AL MVP voting in both 2019 and ’20, but his offensive falloff was the most severe. He ended the season on the injured list due to a sports hernia, an injury that had apparently bothered him for weeks, though he played in 150 of the team’s first 159 games. The injury may have contributed to his sudden power outage, but the opposite field line drives that fueled so many of his homers in 2019 and ’20 were particularly vulnerable to the changed ball.

For that matter, it’s worth noting that after ranking fourth in the AL in pull rate in three of the previous four seasons, the Yankees’ 38.9% rate was second-to-last in AL. Using the whole field to avoid hitting into shifted defenses is a reasonable goal, but they still grounded into the most double plays of any AL team (154).

As for Torres: After hitting 38 homers in his age-22 season in 2019, he has managed just 12 homers and a .366 SLG in 676 PA since. To be fair, the Yankees spent the past two seasons seeing if he could play a competent shortstop, but his -19 DRS and -7.6 UZR suggest that ship has sailed. He also admitted in September he had been chasing home runs by trying to pull everything, an approach that nonetheless left him with the lowest pull rate of his career (37.7%). Urshela, meanwhile, after hitting for a 133 wRC+ in each of the past two seasons, fell off while limited to 116 games by knee and hamstring injuries as well as a COVID-19 breakthrough infection.

While injuries played a role in the team’s offensive dropoff, so did poor situational hitting. Where the Yankees hit for a 130 wRC+ with runners in scoring position in both 2019 and ’20 and posted better-than-average strikeout rates in that context, they dipped to 92 this year with the majors’ seventh-highest strikeout rate. LeMahieu (92), Torres (88), Urshela (81), Odor (69) and Gardner (53) were particularly weak in this area despite a multitude of opportunities. Reviewing what went wrong here, and whether new approaches are necessary, is important.

At catcher, the much-maligned Sánchez hit for a 113 wRC+ with runners in scoring position and improved significantly over his dreadful 2020 overall, but he’s still nowhere near the offensive force that he was when he debuted, and questions about his defense continue to linger. Between those and Cole’s preference for throwing to the light-hitting Higashioka, that position once again produced an exhausting layer of drama but just middle-of-the-pack value (2.3 WAR, 16th in the majors). It’s not as though the Yankees can’t move on from the pair, but two-way contributors such as Russell Martin or Brian McCann ain’t walking through that door given the slim pickings available via free agency.

Figuring out how to reshape this unit is a challenge. The Yankees barely skirted the Competitive Balance Tax threshold by coming in about $3 million below the $210 million threshold, but they don’t have a lot of money coming off the books, and the long-term deals of Cole ($36 million per year through 2028), Stanton ($29 million next year, then $32 million each season from ’23 to ’27), LeMahieu ($15 million a year through ’26), and Hicks (about $10 million a year through ’26) limit their flexibility. With the status of the tax up in the air as a new Collective Bargaining Agreement gets hashed out, the Yankees aren’t likely to start writing big checks until they get some clarity, which could take well into the offseason.

None of the team’s bigger free agents, such as Rizzo, Corey Kluber, or Andrew Heaney, are particularly central to their plans. Rizzo, acquired from the Cubs on July 30, made $16.5 million, with his former team picking up all but the prorated minimum salary after the trade. His left-handedness and contact-oriented approach have some appeal as they diversify the offense, but he’s 32 and hit for a 109 wRC+ in 2020–21. With Voit hopefully returning to health, the Yankees can staff first base for a lower price than the ex-Cub will probably seek.

Kluber, who made $11 million, was effective when he took the mound (3.83 ERA, 3.85 FIP) but threw just 80 innings — still his highest total since 2018 — due to a strain of the subscapularis muscle in his rotator cuff. Heaney, another July 30 acquisition, made $6.75 million, of which the Yankees picked up about $1.8 million; he pitched to a 5.83 ERA and 4.85 FIP overall and was designated for assignment before the playoffs. Cole, Jordan Montgomery, Jameson Taillon, Nestor Cortes, Luis Severino, and Domingo Germán are all under control, but the Yankees have enough risks for injury or regression within that group to think twice about adding another starter of Kluber’s ilk, assuming they don’t bring him back. It’s difficult to imagine the team paying top dollar for Max Scherzer, but Robbie Ray, Carlos Rodón, Marcus Stroman, Noah Syndergaard, and perhaps even Justin Verlander, who’s returning from Tommy John surgery, offer some alternatives.

As for contract options, they’re minimal. The team holds a $3 million club option with a $500,000 buyout on lefty reliever Joely Rodríguez, who was acquired from the Rangers in the Gallo deal. The 38-year-old Gardner has a dual option calling for a $7.15 million salary if the club picks it up (with a $1.15 million buyout) or a $2.3 million salary if he picks it up. In an outfield that will include Judge, Hicks, Gallo, and perhaps Frazier, with Stanton available as well, it’s difficult to see how he fits onto the roster.

Even if the Yankees let all of the aforementioned free agents walk, the arbitration raises due to Judge, Sánchez, Gallo, Voit, Urshela, Torres, Taillon, and Montgomery more than offset the savings, so adding both a starter and one of the shortstops from this winter’s bumper crop — Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Marcus Semien, Javier Báez — will push the team well above the current tax threshold, not that the Yankees can’t afford it or that the structure under the new CBA will be the same. As the lone lefty of the group, Seager carries a particular appeal, with an eventual move to third base an option if either Oswald Peraza or Anthony Volpe — the two shortstops who top their prospect list (though some outlets have outfielder Jasson Dominguez ahead of one or both) — demonstrate their major league readiness.

I keep mentioning the need for left-handed hitters because of this dismal trend:

Yankees Lefthanded Hitters, 2017-21
Season PA HR AVG OBP SLG wRC+
2017 2600 82 .261 .340 .427 105
2018 2305 79 .240 .329 .417 104
2019 1776 83 .243 .322 .465 106
2020 618 14 .204 .331 .348 91
2021 1740 53 .207 .309 .362 87

In 2017, most of those PA were taken by Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury (!), Didi Gregorius, Chase Headley, and the switch-hitting Hicks, all of whom had a 100 wRC+ or better. Hicks (133) and Gregorius (122) were outstanding the following year, but Gardner (91) tailed off, and Greg Bird was a dud. Gardner, Hicks, and surprise contributors Mike Tauchman and Mike Ford were all at 115 or better even as Gregorius struggled to an 84 in his final season in New York. But last year, only Hicks and Gardner were above average, as Tauchman and Ford turned into pumpkins and Wade got too much exposure. This year, Rizzo was the only left-handed Yankees hitter with more than 25 PA who hit for a 100 wRC+ or better. In a division where the Rays seem to have a platoon answer to everything, the Yankees have lost significant ground.

Lefty or no, a new shortstop is expected to be the centerpiece of a much-needed infield reconfiguration, and that’s where the Yankees have some flexibility. Neither Torres nor Urshela is at the peak of their value, but the former has three years of club control remaining as well as an upward second-half trend (115 wRC+), and the latter has two years left. Signing a shortstop, returning Urshela to third and LeMahieu to second, and trading Torres for pitching would be one route to go; trading Urshela and putting LeMahieu at third and Torres at second is an alternative, though it would yield a lesser return. Dealing Gallo could also be in play, but with one year of control remaining, he won’t bring a windfall, and rough intro to the Bronx aside, he could still be part of the team’s left-handed solution. He could also, in theory, man first base if Frazier recovers and the team wants to explore trading Voit, who has three years of control left, but those options probably won’t be in play until next spring or summer, after each demonstrates their health.

The other big expenditure the Yankees face this offseason — but likely not until after a new CBA is in place — is a long-term extension for Judge, who made $10.175 million in 2021 and told reporters in the aftermath of the Wild Card defeat that he “want[s] to be a Yankee for life.” He turns 30 next April, and his body type and injury history present some risk, but with his 39 homers and 5.5 WAR, he clearly ranks among the game’s elite sluggers and serves as a face of the franchise. The team might have to dump Stanton at some point to give Judge more time at DH, but for now, the terrifying one-two punch of that pair is the center of the offense, and it still works.

All of that and I haven’t even addressed the bullpen, where Aroldis Chapman was erratic and where Zack Britton’s Tommy John surgery leaves a late-inning void, but that’s a different kind of problem than the team faces with regards to the offense. Flexibility isn’t the issue there.

Before the Yankees tackle any of this, they’ll have to settle the status of manager Aaron Boone. Since taking over for Joe Girardi following the 2017 season, he’s helmed a team with the majors’ third-highest winning percentage (.601) yet only one AL East title and one trip to the ALCS. They still haven’t been back to the World Series since winning it in 2009; their 12 years without even a pennant is longer than their 1965–75 drought, which ended when newish owner George Steinbrenner started spending money.

Boone, who had never managed before at any level before taking over the Yankees, is a thoroughly modern manager, hired for his leadership, interpersonal skills and ability to deal with the media fishbowl rather than his tactical acumen. He’s managed New York through a slew of major injuries in each of the past three seasons, and while his handling of the bullpen has drawn criticism in this space and beyond (particularly in the postseason, when he’s failed to appreciate the urgency of the situation), Tuesday’s decision to pull Cole with two men on and the Yankees down 3–0 was not one of those times.

Boone is understood to be well-liked in the Yankees clubhouse, and general manager Brian Cashman hasn’t given any indication that he won’t be brought back, nor has a chorus of anonymous sources signaled his pending ouster à la Girardi in 2017. Though Boone said there haven’t been discussions with the Yankees about a new contract, he also said in his post-elimination press conference that he felt “incredibly supported from the organization and ownership and Cash and front office and on down.” That doesn’t sound like a manager who’s being pushed out the door.

The coaching staff might be a different story. Third base coach Phil Nevin may be on the hot seat for his ill-fated send of Judge, who was thrown out at home in the sixth inning of the Wild Card Game, and after a year in which the Yankees made 22 outs at home plate, tied with the Royals for the major league high. With so many hitters underachieving on the offensive side, hitting coach Marcus Thames and assistant hitting coach P.J. Pilittere could be vulnerable as well. Changes behind the scenes, where much noise has been made about the balance between analytics and scouting, appear likely as well.

When Boone said that the league had “closed the gap on us” during his post-Wild Card Game presser, that was an understatement given the extent to which the Yankees have been surpassed by the Rays, Astros, and Red Sox, if not other AL teams. For as rich as the franchise is in resources, New York will have to figure out how to do more with more, which has proven to be a steeper challenge than imagined.





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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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MikeD
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MikeD

Interestingly, for a team known for hitting, it was their pitching that kept them alive most of the season, both starters and relievers. The one coach who should be safe then, even with a managerial change, is the pitching coach Matt Blake, who seems to have brought some of the mysterious Indians (err, Guardians) pitching magic to the Bronx. I’m still trying to figure out Nestor Cortes, as apparently are MLB hitters. Bullpen construction has always been a core strength, even when reconstructed on the fly. Peralta, Holmes and Rodriquez improved and made significant contributions down the stretch.

Hitting and hitting balance was their issue, and it even contributed to a few spectacular bullpen meltdowns. A team simply can’t play that many close games over 162 games without bullpen fatigue setting in. Adding an innings eater (easier said than done) to replace Kluber, while adding in Severino to Cole and Taillon would help, but mostly its an increase in offense and a change in offense diversity that’s required. Strange words to be writing about the Yankees. Yes, brother of Kyle Seager is an obvious answer, but an expensive one, and I’m not convinced yet the Dodgers will let him leave town.

Beyond that, the Yankees probably will be helped by some positive regression. And, yes, a rebalancing between analytics and scouting is in order. Bring in an experienced manager. Showalter remains an obvious choice since he’s someone who frankly could stand up to Cashman and the analytics team and basically tell them all to get out of his dugout once the game starts. He’ll take all their information, but he’ll run the game. They may need that based on what I’ve seen happen in games at times.

steveo
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steveo

Hitting balance didn’t have much to do with it tbh. Look at the Jays. Who’s their best left handed hitter? Second best? Exactly. It would help for sure, but if they bring in Kyle Seager for LH balance is that really going to help the offense? Not really. They need good LH bats like Olson/Rizzo/Seager. They’ve already got Hicks and Gallo. A platoon LHH IF/OF bat that crushes righties would be nice. Showalter is inexplicably awful. He’s worse than Boone. Look at the Rays. Cash is the most analytical manager around and he’s probably the best in game manager in the game.

MikeD
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MikeD

Being too right handed was considered a problem, tbh, especially in an age of the three-batter rule. Buster Olney did a survey of opposing team front offices/talent evaluators and they basically all said the Yankees were doing them a favor by stacking right-handed hitters, many with similar profiles. I wouldn’t put weak lefties into the lineup just for the sake of it, but they should have been trying to diversify with more quality lefties, while adding some more contact into lineup. Having more lefties, and additional contact types, does impact how a team can try to “counter program” and attack the lineup. More critical today than ever as more innings go to the bullpen. David Cone, btw, also said that he welcomed facing lineups stacked with righties because it allowed him to more easily pound the outside corner of the plate. Repetitiveness greatly helped him get into rhythm.

They seemed to suddenly realize that at the trade deadline, but that’s a difficult time to do a thoughtful reconstruction as you’re limited by availability. Is Gallo really helping them diversify? I’d argue no. I wanted them to target Brantley this past offseason. He’s always wanted to play for the Yankees, which is irrelevant, but he would have put them over the luxury tax line, so he wasn’t even an option. Trade Frazier at peak for some pitching, sign Brantley. Frazier was cheap, Brantley was not, and that’s what we got. That really is the issue. During a win-now window, Hal has twice instructed Cashman to get under the luxury tax. A mistake, IMO.

steveo
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steveo

Well, yeah. If you had to pick whether you want a balanced lineup or unbalanced, you’re gonna pick the balanced lineup. I liked Brantley a lot as well, but with the luxury tax, that wasn’t going to happen. Also the team believed in Clint Frazier. Gallo helps a bit, but he’s got massive holes in his swing. I don’t mean the strikeouts either. He misses a ton of cookies in the middle of the plate. For a guy who hit nearly 40 bombs, you wouldn’t think that’s the case.

No one brings up the Jays as being too right handed though. It’s because their RHH actually hit. The Yankees are in a tough spot. Either they’ll spend enough to put them over the top or they’ll take half measures and compete for a WC again. To be fair, they did win 92 games with all their flaws. They weren’t *that* bad. But they were definitely flawed. This will either be a fun offseason for Yankees fans or they’ll trade for like, Josh Bell and sign Andrelton Simmons or something.

MikeD
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MikeD

Interesting that you mention the Blue Jays. Direct lift from Blue Jays beat reporter Shi Davidi on Wednesday. (Link at the bottom.)

“To that end, Atkins (Blue Jays GM) pointed to creating more diversity on offence as a way to complement the current group, noting the difference when Corey Dickerson and Cavan Biggio were in the lineup and contributing.

“It’s not just that they’re left-handed, but how we are attacked and potentially the pitchers that are used is different,” he explained. “Secondarily, we feel it’s important to have balance and not just the same type of hitters up and down your lineup. So some players that are more batting average driven and some players that are more on-base driven with plate discipline. Having both is exceptionally powerful.”

Getting there is, obviously, the tricky part, and worth noting is that before the trade deadline, the Blue Jays took a run at Cleveland third baseman Jose Ramirez and Detroit outfielder Robbie Grossman, a hint at the type of players they think can address those issues.”

https://www.sportsnet.ca/mlb/article/blue-jays-ponder-off-season-moves-focus-closing-gap-rays/

MikeD
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MikeD

Interesting that you mention the Jays. First up, apologies if this appears twice. I posted it and it went straight to moderation, probably because I included a link to the article I’m referencing. I’ve removed the link here.

The quoted block below is from Blue Jays beat reporter Shi Davidi on Wednesday, talking about the Blue Jays concern over line up diversity, something they hope to address and tried to address at the trade deadline. Unlike the Yankees, who waited to the end of this win-now window, it seems the Jays are trying to address it at the start.

“To that end, Atkins (Blue Jays GM) pointed to creating more diversity on offence as a way to complement the current group, noting the difference when Corey Dickerson and Cavan Biggio were in the lineup and contributing.

“It’s not just that they’re left-handed, but how we are attacked and potentially the pitchers that are used is different,” he explained. “Secondarily, we feel it’s important to have balance and not just the same type of hitters up and down your lineup. So some players that are more batting average driven and some players that are more on-base driven with plate discipline. Having both is exceptionally powerful.”

Getting there is, obviously, the tricky part, and worth noting is that before the trade deadline, the Blue Jays took a run at Cleveland third baseman Jose Ramirez and Detroit outfielder Robbie Grossman, a hint at the type of players they think can address those issues.”

RobM
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RobM

Lineup diversity is the new buzzword. Not just the Yankees, but as noted the Jays, and we’ve seen other teams moving in this direction too. There is definitely something to it. It does surprise me a bit that things we knew decades back are being rediscovered. Michael Conforto, a lefty swinger, might want to take note as he contemplates free agency. Two wealthy teams in the AL East might be interested in his services.

montreal
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montreal

Aaron Boone is not the problem. I would keep him over Buck Showalter any day. Showalter pulled off one of the biggest gaffs ever when he refused to bring in Zack Britton (who was elite at that time) for 11 innings and they lost a do or die game. And getting away from analytics ?? Are you serious. That would set the team back farther.
I understand most of your points and your post is well thought out, but as a Yankee fan, lets fix the problems. We need a shortstop. And not Trevor Story. To get older should not be the aim here. Sign Corey Seager who will absolutely be a free agent. The Dodgers have Trea Turner. And get a center fielder. Let’s be honest. Aaron Hicks is one of the weakest CFs in the league. And for gosh sakes get rid of Gary Sanchez. He fails at every aspect of the game. How hard can it be to find a defensive catcher who can hit .230.

carter
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carter

That is a very yankee Twitter fan comment. How many catchers hit .230? Not many. Aaron Hicks issue is staying on the field. Hicks and Sanchez are hardly the issue.

Bernie51fan
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Bernie51fan

I’ll take a competent catcher who hit’s .200. Sanchez was THE biggest problem on this team and if that sounds like a “yankee Twitter fan comment” it’s because Yankee fans had to watch this guy behind the plate all year. Much of the bullpen’s overuse problems have to do with is horrible framing, his inablity to make basic fielding plays and his complete malfeasance when blocking balls. He not only doesn’t get pitchers strike calls, he LOSES pitches that are in the zone by yanking his glove an entire foot into the zone. He can’t catch popups and pitchers get in the way on fielding plays he should make because he takes SO long to get there. Apparently, the pitchers feel they have a better chance of getting an out on that swinging bunt themselves. Yankees pitchers don’t even try to bury a curve or slider in the dirt because they know it will get by him.

Dmjn53
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Dmjn53

Hicks is a very good player when he’s on the field, he’s just never on the field.

Sanchez has many warts, but simply finding a guy with a higher AVG isn’t a solution. Would you have preferred James McCann’s .232/.294/.349 line?

johndarc
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johndarc

Showalter will get to not use Britton all over again, since Zack had TJS and has likely thrown his last pitch as a Yankee.