I was born in 1995, and the 2020 New York Yankees are, relative to expectations, undoubtedly the worst iteration of the team in my lifetime. It’s downright unfathomable that a club that came two wins away from the World Series added the best pitcher in the American League and took about three gigantic steps back. But it’s easier to conceive once one considers why the 2019 team was as good as it was, and why the 2020 team has been so underwhelming by comparison. Both teams experienced a rash of injuries to key players. While last year’s Yankees were propelled by an array of unlikely heroes, thrust into the spotlight by circumstances but thriving in spite of the challenge, those same heroes have been unable to replicate their success this season for a variety of reasons. Does the diminished success of Mike Tauchman, Mike Ford, and Brett Gardner mean the demise of #NextManUp? Where do the Yankees go from here?
The anonymous outfielder acquired for a Triple-A reliever at the end of 2019 spring training was so remarkably good that the fickle Yankee fanbase was uniformly devastated when he went down with an injury in September, rendering him a nonfactor in the postseason. But as great as Tauchman was last year, he’s been just as terrible this time around. He’s not striking out notably more, and he’s still making a decent amount of contact overall. But the quality of that contact has plummeted: his 23.3 percent hard-hit percentage is worse than 96 percent of qualified hitters, and his 1.7 barrel rate ranks 235th out of 250. Tauchman is also swinging at 15 percent fewer “meatballs” than in 2019. His offensive profile was never elite last year, and while some regression to the mean was certainly expected, he’s regressed far, far past the mean.
Ford’s been relatively unlucky this season: while his wOBA sits at an ignominious .217, his expected figure is more than a hundred points higher, placing him around league average. Pitchers seem to have figured him out, to an extent. Ford was hopeless against breaking balls last year and his struggles have continued in 2020, but last year he made up for it by crushing fastballs to the tune of a .600 slugging percentage. The quality of contact against heaters hasn’t regressed too much, but the outcomes have, as he’s slugging just .300 against fastballs this season. Ford has also maintained an above-average pull rate while increasing significantly his ground ball rate, which means more pounding the ball into the dirt against the shift. Not a recipe for success, especially for someone who can’t run and can’t really field. Ford needs to elevate the ball at his 2019 levels to become relevant again.
Wait, what? The longest-tenured Yankee isn’t someone normally grouped in with the #NextManUp crowd. With all that went on last season, it’s easy to forget that Gardner, signed to a one-year deal, wasn’t expected to be an everyday player with the depth of the Yankees’ outfield. But Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton all missed significant time, and Gardner responded to the call by posting one of the best offensive seasons of his career. The success hasn’t carried over, as he’s been one of the worst hitters in the game this year. His strikeout and whiff rates have spiked to career highs. While I never relish criticizing Gardner, a forever Yankee, it seems like he might be closing in on the end of the road.
New York has shown some signs of life over the past few days, but the team will end this abbreviated regular season much farther from the top of the league than anyone anticipated it would. Things haven’t gone well – and it’s the seeming complacency that bothers many fans. While 2019 was a hell of a ride, it was expecting a lot of players like Tauchman, Ford, and even Gardner to carry the club once again. To maximize the current championship window, Cashman and Co. needed to replace the depth that departed when Didi Gregorius signed with the Phillies and the lieutenant field commander of the #NextManUp brigade Cameron Maybin left for Detroit. Obviously, that didn’t happen. The Yankees have enough talent to turn things around and make a deep playoff run this year, but if they don’t right the ship, the recent tendency of this front office to rest on its laurels will rightfully draw tremendous ire.