For a nearly fully healthy New York Yankees team in late March, the championship hype was real. Players like Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres, Aaron Judge, and even Brett Gardner were tearing the cover off the ball. With a healthy starting rotation and a stable of arms at the alternate site, the team itself must have believed the hype. But, the chasmic drop in offense plummeted playoff odds and brought more questions than ever to the Bronx. So who is to blame?
Fans have called for heads for weeks. Plenty of blame lands on Brian Cashman for his team construction. Much negativity is also rightly thrown at Aaron Boone for his overly rosy mindset and stubborn approach. However, much of the load undoubtedly falls on hitting coach Marcus Thames. Since his promotion from assistant to head hitting coach in 2018, the Yankees dogged pursuit of launch angle and the Three True Outcomes ballooned into their current, seemingly inescapable dumpster fire.
Large, Slow Men Cost Yankees Runs
On paper, a fully healthy Yankees lineup absolutely mashes the baseball, juiced or not. The first three years of Aaron Boone’s tenure saw the Yankees hit 667 homers, first in the Majors by 35 over the Dodgers and 103 over third-placed Minnesota. But sitting currently 12th in baseball in homers, the Yankees just don’t score enough outside of the long ball.
Several advanced stats shed some light on this situation. Most evident are two complementary numbers that diverged since 2018. The Yankees ground ball to fly ball ratio has risen from 1.09 in 2018, to 1.31 in 2021. Coincidentally, their hard-hit percentage has plummeted from a high of 38.9% in 2019, to 31.7% in 2021. Up and down the lineup, hitters are making weaker contact in addition to their consistently high BB/K ratio.
With weak contact, speed is imperative. The Yankees hold the lowest FanGraphs speed score in baseball in 2021 at 2.9, almost a half-point below the Cincinnati Reds. When you think about the Yankees’ speed, only 37-year-old Gardner should come to mind, as Tyler Wade needs to be an afterthought with his AAA-level bat. Couple speed score with FanGraphs’ all-encompassing Base Running (BsR) stat and you find the Yankees’ mired at an abysmal -13.1 runs below average. Those stats show the Yankees are poor at taking extra bases, stealing (or even attempting), and costing runs with TOOTBLAN errors (they widely pace the MLB in OOB by seven).
Lack of Fundies Make Our Inner Little-Leaguer Weep
It’s difficult to watch Yankees hitters take the exact same approach over and over again at the plate with RISP. In recent weeks during the so-called turnaround for a select few hitters, we’ve seen Gio Urshela, DJ LeMahieu, and Gleyber make an effort to go the other way. But overwhelmingly for dead-pull hitters like Rougned Odor, Gary Sánchez, and to an extent, Gardner, they continue rollover outside pitches or pop up when challenged inside. The approach needs to change, either by shortening upswings and making a point of getting contact rather than power.
In the Yankees’ 32 losses on the season, they have a collective three sacrifice outs. Two were by Torres and one was by Gardner. It took the team 23 games to record their first sacrifice fly. They have struck out 53 times with a runner on 3rd, with 22 of those coming with less than two outs. They’re 25th or worse in productive outs made, productive out percentage, and baserunner scoring percentage (for which they’re dead last). And, as every Yankee fan knows too well, they lead the league in both double plays and double play percentage.
What Can Be Done?
Instead of playing for runs with contact and an “old-school” approach, the team continues with its now deeply ingrained approach to swing as hard as they might and launch dingers. It worked relatively well for the first years of Boone and Thames. But without a ring to show for it, what was the use? It’s clearly not working now, and the team is suffering mightily because of it.
Hey, I get it. It’s far too comfortable to sit behind a computer and say the Yankees should be doing this or that because it’s “easier.” We all know it’s not. Baseball is incredibly difficult. Even more difficult is the fact that when you try harder, you might find yourself doing far, far worse. But that’s what makes changing approaches in mid-season, either fundamentally or top-down, extremely worrying.
Then again, the end is near for this current Yankees organization. Nine games back in the AL East with some of the better offenses in baseball as your division rivals is a recipe for disaster. Boone and Cashman, to the chagrin of many, are more than likely safe. But Thames’ seat is molten lava right now. If the ax does come down, it surely must be him.