For most teams, in this new era of MLB parity, chugging into the halfway (or, almost halfway) mark of the season at 40-38 and with a 41.4% chance of making the playoffs would be cause for celebration. You’d almost certainly be looking to buy at the deadline, especially if the prevailing wisdom was that you’d actually underperformed so far.
The New York Yankees are not most teams.
Before the season, the Yankees looked like a legitimate juggernaut, even if there were questions about starting rotation depth. But this year’s Yankees have done something which seemed impossible for 21st-century iterations of the Bronx Bombers: not hit.
How bad has the Yankees’ offense been? The Yankees are allowing 4.05 runs per game, not elite but still tenth in MLB. The Yankees are scoring 3.97 runs per game, seventh-worst in MLB and below the Orioles, Royals, Mariners, and Diamondbacks. The Nationals are about to pass the Yankees too (one or two more Kyle Schwarber homers should do it), and the Mets are about to get fully healthy for the first time all year, which means that the Yankees can legitimately be stated to have a bottom-five MLB offense. That’s...unexpected.
There have been some bright spots. Aaron Judge continues to cement his status as one of the more underrated franchise players in the game, mashing to the tune of a .285/.382/.515 (147 wRC+) batting line and well on his way to his fourth 4.5 fWAR-win season in five years. Gary Sanchez seems to have bounced back with his glove as well as his bat, with a .232/.341/.479 batting line (124 wRC+, 13 home runs) and premier defense. Giancarlo Stanton hasn’t been quite as otherworldly as we’re used to, but it’s hard to complain about a 134 wRC+ and 14 homers from a full-time designated hitter. Gio Urshela has hit okay (109 wRC+, -2.6 Offensive runs below average), and played good defense.
The problem is that the rest of the Yankees’ position players have ranged from mediocre to bad. DJ LeMahieu, the linchpin of the Bombers’ offensive attack over the last two seasons, began the year in an awful slump and never really recovered. Granted, hitting .273/.345/.377 isn’t bad per se, but it’s a far cry from the .336/.386/.536 triple slash with 36 home runs LeMahieu posted in 2019 and 2020. The Yankees’ sixth-leading hitter this year by both wRC+ and wOBA (among all hitters with more than 100 PA) has been backup catcher Kyle Higashioka, who is hitting a YIKES-worthy .198/.277/.440. All over the field are offensive voids. Only five teams have received fewer fWAR from their left fielders than the Yankees, who watched Clint Frazier “hit” .186/.313/.317 with some of the worst defense of any outfielder in the majors before turning the spot over to converted third baseman and former Rookie of the Year runner-up Miguel Andujar’s not-really-better .250/.280/.368 (78 wRC+) and basically scratch defense. The Yankees are one of only four teams to get negative contributions both offensively and defensively from their center fielders, with 37-year-old Brett Gardner’s .195/.301/.299 line so bad that the team has recently started putting Aaron Judge in center field despite his injury problems. Of course, if Judge plays center field, he’s flanked by Frazier and Andujar, and that defensive alignment leaves a great deal to be desired.
It’s worse than just the outfield. Gleyber Torres’ power, which was a concern coming into the season after his ISO was cut in half during the abbreviated 2020 season, has now completely evaporated. Torres is hitting .238/.319/.310 with an ISO of .073, putrid offense which doesn’t make up for well below average shortstop defense.
It’s not all doom and gloom. The recent return of Luke Voit, injured most of the season, should help somewhat. LeMahieu has an xwOBA of .345, which isn’t at his previous MVP-level but suggests his offense should improve somewhat. And the Yankees’ BaseRuns W-L of 42-36 suggests the team has been a bit unlucky.
But right now the Yankees are 7.5 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox, and more importantly six games back of the second wildcard Oakland Athletics. Both Tampa Bay and Toronto lie between the Bombers are the Red Sox, and those teams, plus Cleveland and Seattle, are in front of them in the wild card chase. For the Yankees to catch the Red Sox would require them to be eight games better the rest of the way than a Red Sox team that FanGraphs projects to win 93 games. For the Yankees to win 94 games, they’d have to go 54-28 the rest of the way, a .659 winning percentage. To catch an Oakland team projected to win 90 games, they’d have to go 50-32, a .610 winning percentage.
Ordinarily, this is where we say that the Yankees and their vaunted payroll have the talent and money to fill their holes and go on an extended run. But frankly, I’m not sure that’s true. This is a team with a negative run differential that badly needs more offense, and whilst it’s fair to expect better from LeMahieu the rest of the way, that leaves two outfield spots and shortstop as three offensive black holes. The Yankees might be able to carry three bad hitters if their defense was even okay, but of Frazier, Torres, and Andujar, only the latter is even close to being an average defender, and Frazier is one of the worst in baseball.
Maybe you believe that this trio can hit better than they have. Maybe you say that Giancarlo Stanton should play the outfield and you DH Frazier, mitigating the latter’s atrocious defense at the cost of increased injury risk for your most expensive (and injury-prone) position player. Unfortunately, Statcast doesn’t suggest Frazier will start hitting any time soon. His .208 xBA is in the bottom 4% of all qualified hitters. Frazier has been worth negative run values at the plate against fastballs, sliders, curveballs, cutters, and sinkers in 2021 (He’s been good against splitters, though). Frazier’s overall swing metrics haven’t really changed; he doesn’t swing at bad pitches more, or whiff more often than he used to, really. He just...doesn’t hit the ball hard anymore, and that’s not something you can expect to just rebound.
Then there’s Torres, who frighteningly has one of the lowest exit velocity marks in baseball this year at 86 mph, made worse by being one of the worst hitters in baseball against fastballs this year. Torres, too, isn’t chasing more than he used to; he’s just...getting beaten on pitches he shouldn’t. It’s weird for 24-year-old Torres and 26-year-old Frazier to have the profiles of aging hitters, and it’s possible they bounce back, but for them to do so you have to play them every day in hopes they snap out of it. You can’t really afford to do that if you’re a contender. As for Andujar, it actually looks like he’s been a tad unlucky, and maybe he, too, can be better than he has been.
If the Yankees’ run prevention was sustainable, a good case could be made to pick up a rental shortstop like Trevor Story and a corner outfielder and go for it. You can’t carry three or four dead spots in your lineup, but one or two isn’t bad, right? But the problem is that the Yankees’ rotation just isn’t as good as it seems with Corey Kluber injured. True, Gerrit Cole has been his usual brilliant self and Jordan Montgomery has been a surprisingly competent Number 2 starter. But Jameson Taillon has a 5.18 ERA and is allowing an alarming amount of hard contact. Domingo German has returned from his domestic violence suspension to throw pitches with some of the least movement in MLB. And the fifth spot in the rotation is currently held by Michael King, who has an expected ERA of 5.19. With neither Kluber nor erstwhile ace Luis Severino all that close to returning, the Yankees likely need two starting pitchers.
None of this is to say that the Yankees are a bad team. They’re not. What they are is a team that needs a starting shortstop, at least one starting outfielder, two starting pitchers, and bullpen help, and that’s assuming they don’t suffer any more injuries. A team with that many holes just can’t be expected to rattle off 50 wins in 80 games. The good news is that the core of this team - Cole, Judge, Voit, Stanton, LeMahieu, Urshela, and Montgomery - will be back next year to try again. Selling now will give the team a chance to bring in reinforcements they are sure to need.