The New York Yankees have not lived up to expectations in 2021. With a 22-18 record, the club is about a quarter of the way through the season. The team’s .550 win percentage equals about 89 wins over the course of a full season. While that is still a solid win total, it is nowhere close to what fans expect from the 2021 Yankees.
On April 21, the Yankees’ 6-11 record was the worst in the American League. They have gone 16-7 since April 22, one of the better records in baseball over that span. Despite this, the offense has been quite subpar, to say the least. On the other hand, the pitching has been borderline elite, one of the best in the sport. This is a stark reversal from what we know about the Yankees. Let’s get into the good and the bad of their first 40 games.
Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton
Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have tried their best to keep the Yankee offense above water. Despite Stanton heading to the injured list with a quad strain on Monday, fans have finally gotten to see what it looks like when both guys are healthy. Stanton has put up a line of .282/.347/.524, good for a .881 OPS, 145 wRC+, with nine home runs and 24 RBI. Aaron Judge has put up a line of .298/.399/.611, good for a 1.009 OPS, 185 wRC+, with a league-leading 12 home runs and 24 RBI. When hot, these guys look like the best players on the planet.
For a 12-game stretch from April 23 to May 6, Stanton put up a 1.413 OPS with six home runs. Manager Aaron Boone moved Stanton up to second in the batter order and put Judge third, which seems to have made a real difference for both players. Judge, who just won the AL Player of the Week from May 9 to 16, batted .571 with a 1.973 OPS and five homers during the week. With Stanton now on the injured list, Judge will be counted on even more to be in the lineup every day and to continue producing at this level.
The Catching Tandem
While Gary Sanchez came into 2021 as the starting catcher, it is no longer that situation. Kyle Higashioka has deservedly received more playing time, and it basically in a platoon with Sanchez right now. While this situation has received a lot of attention, the catcher position has been a strength for New York thus far. The team’s 10 home runs from that position lead all of baseball. Its 14.5% walk rate rank third, 118 wRC+ rank sixth, .771 OPS rank sixth, and 1.3 fWAR ranks seventh.
Things seemed to change last year Higashioka become Gerrit Cole’s “personal catcher” during September. Cole’s numbers with Sanchez behind the plate were worse than when Higashioka was behind the plate. Combine Higashioka’s better defense with Sanchez’s slumping offense, it became easy to call for Sanchez to be benched. This turned into Sanchez being benched in the playoffs, leading to Higashioka getting more playing time. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Sanchez only started in two of the team’s seven total games. While Sanchez’s role on this team continues to be in flux, he has not been as bad as his .193 average suggests. He is striking out less than last year while walking at a 15% rate, leading to a .336 OBP, .723 OPS, and .108 wRC+. While Higashioka’s batting average is at .196, he has posted a .854 OPS and 135 wRC+. Additionally, his framing currently ranks in the 94th percentile in baseball.
Gerrit Cole, Aroldis Chapman, and the Pitching Staff
The pitching staff will only go as far as Gerrit Cole can lead them. As this author wrote at the end of April, Cole has been the best starter in the league thus far. As it currently stands, Cole has 56 strikeouts since his last walk, one of the most dominant stretches of all time. Ranking at or near the top of every statistical category, Cole is the AL Cy Young favorite and is in a position to even receive some MVP votes.
It is easy to take his greatness for granted, but it is hard to fathom what he is doing right now. His 2.7 fWAR ranks first among all pitchers in baseball, deGrom is second with 2.3. He leads a Yankee pitching staff that ranks first in baseball with 7.3 fWAR.
The rotation ranks sixth with 4.6 but the bullpen ranks first with 2.7. With a 3.36 team ERA, 3.41 FIP, and 10.39 K/9, it is clear to see the pitching staff has been better than most thought. Coming into the season, the pitching staff profiled as one with a high ceiling but riddled with question marks, from durability to experience.
Leading the best bullpen in baseball is Aroldis Chapman. He has not allowed an earned run yet, and as such, does not even have an ERA+ yet because of his 0.00 ERA. His 57.4% strikeout rate is first in baseball as he has struck out 31 of the 54 batters he has faced. His strikeout mastery is also reflected in his rate of 18.6 K/9; 31 strikeouts in 15 innings pitched. There are a number of stats to show how elite Chapman has been in 2021. While his ERA will not be 0.00 all year, this is the best Chapman has ever been in his career.
Despite the offense picking up the slack a bit in recent weeks, it has underwhelmed on the whole. Mind you, offense is down around the league, perhaps due to a deadened baseball. Regardless, the Yankees vaunted offense has not shown up day in day out like fans are accustomed to seeing. Their combined 4.2 fWAR ranks 20th in baseball. Their -7 baserunning runs (BsR) have been the worst in the league. Their .225 average ranks 24th, .318 OBP ranks ninth, .385 SLG ranks 18th, .312 wOBA ranks 12th, and 101 wRC+ ranks 10th. While a 101 wRC+ means they have been basically league-average, it has been a story of two offenses for New York. They had an 81 wRC+ going into play on April 22. Since then, they have posted a 115 wRC+ that is fourth-best in baseball in that span. Despite this poor performance, the club’s 11.4% walk rate ranks second in baseball.
The offense has been especially bad when looking at their performance from their left and center fielders. Their two primary left fielders have been Clint Frazier and Brett Gardner, who have been virtual black holes in the lineup. Frazier has hit .155/.287/.311 while Gardner has hit .171/.261/.211. These are abysmal batting lines and have contributed to a total of -1.2 fWAR.
Even though the combined 11.1% walk rate from that position is eighth in the league, that is all they have done. Gardner is a defense-speed guy while Frazier’s best attribute is his bat. Ideally, these traits should mix well and they should form a competent, if not above-average platoon, yet that has not been seen. While Aaron Hicks has been the primary center fielder for the Yankees in 2021, things are not much better at this position. The -0.3 fWAR from center field is 29th in baseball. Gardner has also played center and will be playing a lot more moving forward due to Hicks’ recent IL placement.
In recent years, the outfield defense has been a strong suit for the Yankees. In 2021 however, the outfield defense has been very poor. Their combined -11 DRS ranks last in baseball, with their -4.9 UZR ranking 24th. By Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average (OAA), their four main outfielders have posted a -6 OAA. Even Judge cannot save this defense. In a stark reversal from his career numbers, Judge has been much worse defensively this year. He has posted -2 DRS, -1.4 UZR, and -2 OAA. While it seems like he has approached his outfield defense differently than his last years, such as not attacking balls with the same intensity, his drop from elite to below average is shocking. Additionally, Gardner usually plays excellent defense. Yet, his -1 DRS and 0 OAA show he has not been his usual self in the field.
The New York Yankees are supposed to mash the baseball. They have not done that a quarter of the way through the 2021 season. What they have still been able to do is provide shutdown relief pitching and get on base at a good clip. An added bonus is that their starting pitching has lived up to its potential thus far, but is still a question mark as the season progresses. What has also been a pleasant surprise thus far in the club has not been hit nearly as badly by the injury bug as they were in 2019 and 2020.
Despite the recent injured list placements of Stanton and Hicks, injuries have not played a big role in the season so far. The infield defense has not been a huge issue with Gio Urshela, Gleyber Torres, and D.J. LeMahieu all performing at above-average levels. Although the Yankees have a +11 run differential thus far in 2021, the team will be expected to perform better than that over its next 40 games. They currently stand third in the division. It will be interesting to see what the division will look like after 80 games.
Players mentioned: Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Boone, Gary Sanchez, Gerrit Cole, Aroldis Chapman, Kyle Higashioka, Clint Frazier, Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, Gio Urshela, Gleyber Torres, and DJ LeMahieu
Main Photo: Embed from Getty Images