The New York Yankees are a very talented ball club. It is important to get that note out of the way before going into their issues. Coming into Sunday, New York’s record is at 5-9. That is their worst start to a season since 2016, which is the last time they missed the playoffs. Entering 2021, the team’s biggest weakness was their starting pitching, and by extension, the pitching staff as a whole. Instead, the Yankees offense has shown they are still stuck in Spring Training mode. Injuries have not been a concern and everyone looks fresh yet the team has been unable to get into a groove. It is only a matter of time before things start clicking for this team. However, let’s dissect what is currently plaguing the team.
The Pitching Is Not the Main Problem
The concerns about the rotation have been validated thus far as they have posted a combined 4.94 ERA. That ranks them 23rd in the league. Coming into Sunday, Gerrit Cole has a sub-2.00 ERA while the rest of the rotation has posted an ERA over 6.00. This suggests that Cole is the only reason why the rotation has not been the worst in the league.
However, their bullpen has posted a 2.39 ERA and 2.63 FIP, ranking as the second-best bullpen in the sport. Combine all that and the result is a team that has a top-10 pitching staff in the league. The staff ranks 10th in ERA, 10th in FIP, second in K/9, and eighth in fWAR. It has only been 14 games but this has been a trend for the Yankees in recent years. A decent rotation, a superior bullpen, and a very powerful lineup have been the recipe for success for the Yankees. However, these first 14 games provide a glimpse at what the club looks like when their offense is not clicking.
Not “Savages in the Box”
Three true outcomes – the home run, walk, and strikeout – rule modern baseball. The Yankees’ offense personifies these three outcomes more than any other team. In 2020, the Yankees led the AL in HR% and BB% while finishing 13th in SO%. The hallmark of the Yankees’ offensive approach is plate discipline. It involves taking pitches, working long counts, drawing walks, and being tough outs for opposing pitchers. Whether their plate appearances end in walks, hits, or strikeouts, the lineup could be counted on to give productive at-bats day in day out. The offense prides itself on being “savages in the box” as manager Aaron Boone famously stated back in 2019.
That vaunted plate discipline has not really shown up thus far in 2021. Despite a 10.4 BB% that ranks fifth in baseball, their .302 OBP ranks 23rd, and their .354 SLG ranks 29th. Accordingly, their .655 OPS ranks 28th in baseball. The patience at the plate is more about waiting for your pitch to hit rather than simply drawing walks. This is what has made the Yankees so dangerous in the past.
For example, if a pitcher leaves the ball middle-in to Giancarlo Stanton then he will crush it for a home run. However, if he does not get a pitch like that to hit during the game, he is okay drawing the walk and still getting on base. This is how the Yankees’ offense tires out the opposing pitcher and increases pitch counts which is a vital part of their recipe for success.
Lack of Power
Along with a .354 SLG that ranks 29th in the sport, their .137 ISO ranks 23rd. Their 2.9 HR% ranks 17th in the sport, 6.4 XBH% ranks 25th, and their 30.7 AB/HR ranks 18th, and 15 total home runs rank 17th in the league. All of this goes to show that not only are the Yankees not hitting home runs, but they also are not hitting for extra bases either. Yankee Stadium is a hitter-friendly park that is more conducive to home runs than anything else. However, it is this lack of extra-base hits that contributes to the poor slugging and ISO numbers.
The Yankees started 6-8 in 2019 and 7-7 in 2018. Those are slow starts in which the Yankees’ primary issues were on the pitching end. While the offensive approach at the plate is often a topic of frustration for Yankees fans, they are at their best when they are hitting homers. The lineup was constructed to work the count, take advantage of mistakes, and hit home runs.
Ground Balls and RISP
Their lack of power also comes into play when thinking about ground balls. The team’s 45.6% ground ball rate ranks seventh in baseball. For a team predicated upon hitting home runs, their ground ball rate is too high. Some of the teams who hit even more ground balls, such as the Chicago White Sox or San Diego Padres, have the athleticism and the type of players who can still succeed.
Furthermore, the Yankees rank 25th in line-drive rate and 20th in fly-ball rate. Even in their last full season, 2019, the team ranked only 22nd in line-drive rate, but ninth in fly-ball rate and 19th in ground ball rate. More balls in the air typically mean more home runs. Early on, the Yankees have traded more balls in the air for more balls on the ground.
One other frustrating aspect of this Yankees’ offense is its performance with men on base. They have grounded into 16 double plays, which is the second-most in baseball. One of their best players, DJ LeMahieu, has already grounded into three double plays in 13 games. This is the same number as 2020 when he played 50 games. With a lineup that hits the ball as hard as the Yankees’ offense does, they are bound to ground into many double plays. However, with seemingly so many occurring this early on, it is hard not to be frustrated. The club is hitting .222/.340/.289 with RISP, an abysmal .629 OPS. They have had trouble getting that big hit with runners in position to score, which is something the offense has done with ease in the past.
Final Thoughts on the Yankees’ Offense
The key to the Yankees getting out of their funk is the long ball. At times, their reliance on home runs seems like overkill, yet it is their offensive calling card. The club has struggled mightily on defense as well, but some of that would be overlooked if they were scoring more runs. They have not taken advantage of pitches in the zone like they usually do, hitting few home runs and collecting fewer base hits in general.
Aaron Judge has hit four home runs already, Gary Sanchez, Kyle Higashioka, and Giancarlo Stanton have each hit two. Even those four players have not hit their strides yet, despite some big moments in the early going. It might take some time for the Yankees’ offense to click, but once it does, it will be like waking a sleeping giant. For now, however, the bullpen needs to keep doing its job holding down the fort.
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images