Where the Yankees Have Gone Wrong
The struggles we've seen in 2021 prove this roster was setup to fail.
The 2021 New York Yankees were expected to be an elite team. They were the preseason favorite to win the American League and now, on June 24th, it’s unclear if this team is even going to make the playoffs. Considering they still have most of the same players from the team that won 103 games and went to the ALCS in 2019, and have added Gerrit Cole, this season has been stunning on the surface. However, the writing was on the wall last year.
In the 60-game abbreviated schedule, the Yankees finished just 33-27 and got exposed by the Rays in the ALDS. But many people, including myself, chose to ignore those warning signs as part of a weird, disrupted, fluky season. Through 73 games in 2021, that appears to be a mistake.
When you look at the Yankees’ roster top to bottom, it’s almost laughable. They have, at most, three plus defenders, little to no speed, a lineup loaded with one-dimensional hitters, and most egregiously, not a single competent left-handed bat on the 40-man roster. This has created a team that’s poor defensively, on the base-paths, and most importantly, at the plate. After finishing as a top-five scoring offense in each of the last four seasons, the Yankees are 26th in runs, and 14th in wRC+ this year. Outside of the pitching, which has been a surprising positive for the Yankees, they don’t do much consistently well.
Flawed Roster Construction
It’s hard to understand what Brian Cashman was thinking when he assembled this team. I know this is an earth-shattering revelation, but the New York Yankees play their home games at Yankee Stadium. You know, the place with an infamous 314 foot short porch in right field? Therefore, you’d expect the Yanks to have plenty of strong left-handed bats on roster. Well, that’s simply not the case. Currently, Rougned Odor is the best left-handed hitter on the team. Yes, the same Rougned Odor who’s batting .196 with a .673 OPS and 79 wRC+ this year. The only other lefties or switch hitters even on the 40-man roster are Brett Gardner, Tyler Wade, Estevan Florial and the injured Aaron Hicks. As a group, Yankees lefties are slashing a league-worst .187/.285/.313 with 14 home runs and a 70 wRC+.
Teams are supposed to tailor their roster to their home ballpark and the Yankees have done the opposite. As a result, they’re just 20-18 when playing in the Bronx. That puts them on pace for their worst mark since finishing 43-38 at home in 2014. They’ve hit fewer home runs in more games and have a lower batting average and OPS at home compared to on the road. Yankee Stadium has long provided a massive home-field advantage to the Yankees, but this year it’s not the case, even with fans back.
The other critical offensive flaw is New York’s over-reliance on strikeout-heavy, power hitters. The Yanks are 31-20 when hitting a home run this season and just 8-14 when they don’t. This has been an issue for years and usually does the Yankees in come playoff time. For some reason, the front office refuses to make adjustments. Of their everyday players, only DJ LeMahieu (15.6%) has a strikeout rate under 20%. Additionally, only four players (Aaron Judge, Gio Urshela, LeMahieu and Giancarlo Stanton) have a batting average above .250. The Yankees’ 24.8% team strikeout rate and .233 team batting average both rank in the bottom half of the league.
Lack of Fundamentals
One of the main causes of New York’s offensive woes this season is their inability to come through in key situations. The Yankees are batting .213 with runners in scoring position (RISP), good for 28th in the sport. Just two years ago, the Yankees led baseball with a .294 batting average with RISP. They’ve also hit only 31 of their 93 team home runs with runners on base. Only the Rockies, Orioles and Pirates have less than that. Those three teams have a combined record of 80-141. Positive regression should be coming over the next few months, but the question is when and to what degree?
Fundamentally, this team is a nightmare. Their base-running is unacceptably bad. The Yankees are league-worst in outs made on the bases (32), outs made at home plate (14) and stolen bases (15). Defensively, they’re not much better. They’re 23rd in baseball with -8 defensive runs saved and roughly league average with 41 errors. Honestly, I don’t even know who’s to blame for this between the players, coaching staff and front office. It’s probably some combination of all three and it’s a glaring example of organizational ineptitude.
Poor Player Development
When Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Gleyber Torres, Miguel Andujar and Clint Frazier all debuted from 2016-2018, it appeared the Yankees finally had a young nucleus to build around. All five players produced at least one elite season. Aaron Judge was MVP runner-up in 2017, Torres and Sanchez have each hit 30+ home runs in a season and made All Star teams, Andujar finished second in 2018 AL Rookie of the Year voting and Frazier was one of the team’s best hitters in 2020.
Fast forward to 2021, and Aaron Judge is the only one who’s still consistently above average. Torres, Andujar and Frazier all have an OPS below .700 and a wRC+ of 87 or worse. Torres also leads the team with 10 errors. Sanchez has looked much better of late, but is one of the league’s most inconsistent hitters, as well as a poor defender. The sudden regression is extremely concerning.
In that same span, the Yanks have gone from having a top-five farm system to one that ranks in the bottom 10 of MLB, according to most outlets. The front office hasn’t hit on a premium draft pick in years. The Yankees have had 14 first round selections since 2010 and only three have reached the Major Leagues. Only Aaron Judge has made a notable impact in pinstripes. Acquiring quality talents like Luke Voit and Gio Urshela for next to nothing took some of the heat off Brian Cashman the last few years, but a few more weak draft classes and that won’t be the case anymore.
Rest of Season Outlook
Don’t get me wrong, there have been some positives this season. The team is somehow 39-34 despite all their flaws. They’ve won series’ against five of the six best teams in the American League (Houston, Chicago, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Cleveland). Ultimately, a team with Aaron Judge, Gerrit Cole and a healthy Giancarlo Stanton is going to win some games. Yet, they also have a losing record within the division and the Tigers swept them.
For every good thing they’ve done, there’s a negative to match it. I’m not going to rule out the possibility of a second-half turnaround, as there’s still enough top-end talent and firepower on this roster to win games. However, each passing day makes it seem increasingly likely that this Yankees team will be sitting on the couch come October, a development that would be nothing short of a disaster.