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The Yankees boom-or-bust roster earned them an early playoff exit

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Boston dominated the Yankees in the wild card game. Turns out over relying on homers doesn’t work against good pitching.

Wild Card Round - New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images

There was no moment in Tuesday night’s American League Wild Card game that the Yankees took control. The first two New York hitters were aggressive at the plate, which yielded two immediate outs. Giancarlo Stanton then hit a single that he admired, cringely fooling Yankee play-by-play man John Sterling, who for sure thought the ball ended up in neighboring New Hampshire.

Oops!

Things didn’t get any better from that point forward, as Yankee ‘$36 million a year’ pitcher Gerritt Cole struggled to command his pitches, laying a hanging breaking ball right over the plate that Xander Boegarts blasted for a two-run first inning homer.

The only point in which it looked like New York had a fighting chance was in the fifth inning, when in the midst of a rally, third base coach Phil Nevins gave Aaron Judge the green light to round third (from first base) on another Stanton off-the-monster single.

It was a gamble that didn’t pay-off, as that aggressive baserunning call turned into the second out of the inning, and a complete rally-killing, momentum-changing play.

At that point, it was pretty clear Boston would win and advance to the ALDS.

Anecdotally, most Yankee fans I’ve talked to have the same reaction to the 2021 performance and season end: good riddance to a system that doesn’t work; it’s time to rebuild the front office and start anew.

They have a point, after all, it’s been over a decade since the Yankees won the World Series, and while the team is competitive every year, under Boone’s managerial tenure, they’ve only won one AL East pennant in four years. What makes matters worse is that during that tenure the Red Sox tanked-and-rebuilt, the Blue Jays had to rebuild, and Baltimore remained terrible. The Rays were the only consistent threat, at a fraction of the cost. Now that’s frustrating.

The reality is that the entire season was a bit of a disjointed, streaky mess for the Yankees. New York never held sole possession of first place — not for one day. The only time they were in first at all was a week into the season on April 6th. From that point forward, they were always playing catch-up.

The Yankees put together an impressive 13-game winning streak in mid-August, propelling them into the driver’s seat for the American League wild card, then they took an immediate step backwards, promptly losing seven in a row in early September.

It was that inconsistency and streakiness that showed this was a mediocre team with flashes of brilliance, and flashes of below-.500 downside.

Coming into the season it was the pitching that was most worrisome for New York. With several players coming off injuries and suspensions, most notably, Luis Severino and Corey Kluber, but also inclusive of Jameson Taillon and Domingo German (German didn’t play last year due to a domestic violence suspension). It was hard to see how they’d find the innings needed to avoid burning out their bullpen.

Yet, this was not an area where New York really struggled. The Yankees ended up top-five in starting pitcher innings, only behind Oakland, Houston, Chicago, and Toronto --- all solid to good teams either in the playoffs, or in the hunt most of the year. Yankees starters were also pretty effective, in the top five on both ERA and FIP.

Similarly, their bullpen was top-three in fWAR, and right amongst the most effective in the league.

The problems for this team is on the offensive side and Brian Cashman’s construction of the roster.

What made this team so streaky is their overreliance on the home run. While the Yankees were hitting homers around the same rate as their fellow AL playoff teams, they were not posting nearly as many other extra-base hits.

Three True Outcomes - AL Playoff Teams

Team K% BB% HR% TTO %
Team K% BB% HR% TTO %
Yankees 24.50% 10.20% 3.66% 38.36%
Red Sox 22.60% 8.40% 3.58% 34.58%
Rays 24.80% 9.40% 3.57% 37.77%
White Sox 22.80% 9.60% 3.12% 35.52%
Astros 19.40% 9.00% 3.51% 31.91%

The Yankees’ one-dimensional roster construction was a problem all season, and it was exacerbated at the trade deadline with the acquisition of Joey Gallo. Gallo, a slugger in his own right, is a player with similar profiles to other sluggers on the team but without the upside. Rougned Odor and Anthony Rizzo hit almost as many doubles as they do home runs, but they’re hardly doubles hitters.

New York finished dead-last in the American League in doubles, and 10th in singles; they also only hit 13 triples, compared to 35 for the Rays.

While the Yankees hit about the same number of home runs as their AL playoff counterparts, they weren’t doing nearly enough to amass other extra base hits that lead to putting crooked numbers on the board and lead to innings-long rallies that cause mayhem for opposing teams.

This boom-or-bust strategy can work in a 162-game grind, where long winning streaks can outlast shorter losing streaks, and where a team can really beat-up terrible pitching. However, this boom-or-bust strategy can be exposed against good pitching, as it was in the Wild Card game, when Nathan Eovaldi and the Boston relievers shutdown New York.

Extra Base Hits - AL Playoff Teams

Team Doubles Triples Home Runs Doubles% Extra Base Hit%
Team Doubles Triples Home Runs Doubles% Extra Base Hit%
Yankees 213 12 222 3.51% 7.38%
Red Sox 330 23 219 5.39% 9.34%
Rays 288 35 222 4.64% 8.77%
White Sox 275 22 190 4.52% 8.00%
Astros 299 14 221 4.75% 8.49%

What the table above shows is the Yankees are at the forefront of today’s three-true-outcomes mentality, with nearly 40 percent of their plate appearances ended in a strikeout (24.5 percent), walk (10.2 percent), or home run (3.6 percent), a number higher than any other playoff team in the American League.

Luckily for fans, it appears that this aesthetically-distasteful type of roster construction is not the winning formula for a World Series contending dynasty.

To fix the offensive problems, the club needs to diversify their lineup, complementing the sluggers with players who get on base in ways other than obtaining a walk.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano