For the fourth straight season, Yankees’ fans have been handed the same old story. “We’re close.” And the reality of it is, that’s true. The Yankees are close, but Yankees fans don’t care about close. I think fans cared about close in 2017 and 2018. They don’t want to be close anymore, they want to arrive already.
So what’s keeping the Yankees close? In other words, what held them back this season? Well, you have to start in the regular season, and much of what went wrong was the demise of #nextmanup coupled with bad defensive players manning the most important defensive positions.
You can’t talk about the Yankees offense this year without first mentioning the fact that, yet again, the Yankees faced a laundry list of players on the IL. The Yankees had 13 different players miss time this season including Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, D.J LeMahieu, Gio Urshela, Aaron Hicks, and Gleyber Torres.
But even with all those injuries, they were 3rd in the league in OBP, 5th in wOBA, 5th in xSLG, and 4th in xWOBA. All in all, this was a really good hitting team this year. They didn’t even strike out that much, ranked 7th best in the league in that category. They did that while also being in the top five in home runs.
However, when we break it down into who some of the everyday players became at some points, it gets ugly. And when the names on the lineup card every day were getting ugly, so too did the win-loss record. On August 17th, the Yankees were 16-6, then they ran into Tampa, who swept a three-game set in the Bronx. In those games, Gio Urshela batted 2nd, Gleyber Torres was the four-hitter and Mike Tauchman, Clint Frazier, Miguel Andujar, and Thairo Estrada rounded out the lineup. DJ LeMahieu, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton were nowhere to be seen, and would not be seen for a while longer. The losses began to pile up against the likes of the Braves, Mets, and Blue Jays. From August 17th to September 8th, the Yankees would have five games where they scored just one run. Before you could even blink, the Yankees were 21-21.
And you don’t want to make too many excuses for a team, but the reasoning for that was the loss of so many key hitters throughout the regular season. Furthermore, the next man up was the key to the 2019 season. 2020 had the potential to be a similar script, but instead, it became the next man mostly down. Let’s take a look at some of those next men and their tough seasons at the plate.
An absolute darling of an acquisition that grabbed the hearts of Yankees fans in 2019 quickly faded to irrelevancy and bewilderment in 2020. Tauchman had, to put it nicely, a bad season. He slashed .242/.342/.305 with a .286 wOBA a 79 wRC+ and a whopping zero home runs in 111 plate appearances. About the only encouraging thing for Tauchman is that he still managed to get on base at a solid clip. Outside of that, though, there isn’t much to hang your hat on. He was 327th out of 352 players in Barrel per Plate Appearance % in the MLB, 325th in balls hit 95+, and was 321st in Hard Hit %. He also had issues all season with timing. For whatever reason, Tauchman was late on so many fastballs. His Hard Hit % on fastballs fell because of it, falling from 46.6% in 2019 to 30.8% in 2019. Tauchman is still a solid player I believe, but the Yankees can’t afford for him to have the same season in 2021.
Yet another player that opened some eyes in 2019, but had a disappointing 2020 campaign. Mike Ford had 84 Plate Appearances in 2020, slashing .135/.226/.270 with a .224 wOBA and a 36 wRC+. Compare that to last season, when he posted a .372 wOBA and 134 wRC+ in 163 plate appearances, and you are left scratching your head much like we are with Tauchman. Again, I do think Ford is a solid player, but he is going to need to prove himself next season if he wants to stick around.
Thairo Estrada, in my opinion, played too many games for the Yankees this season. He was terrible, slashing .167/.231/.229 with a .212 wOBA and a 29wRC+. He also had a measly 1.9% BB% and an eyesore 36.5 K%. I understand that there was a bevy of injuries that the Yankees had to face this season, but there had to be better options than marching Thairo Estrada out there every day. He was struggling mightily, as we could see, and should have been replaced earlier.
Now, this is not to say that all the replacements in the Yankees lineup were bad. For instance, Clint Frazier and Tyler Wade outplayed some expectations. They were two key pieces towards keeping the Yankees somewhat afloat. There’s also someone like Gary Sanchez, who came into the season as an everyday player, only to struggle so much that he ended up on the bench when October rolled around.
And it’s easy to say that none of this matters given the fact that the Yankees made the ALDS anyway, but I do think seeding would have mattered. Had the replacements stepped up and contributed, the Yankees could have been in a situation where they did not meet the Rays in the ALDS. They also could have been in a situation where they played the first round at home and against a weaker opponent, meaning less travel and perhaps an avoidance of the headache scenario that getting past Cleveland turned out to be. We love to look at the Regular Season, especially this past year, as a mere dress rehearsal. But I truly believe the Yankees made their postseason road as difficult as it possibly could have been, and that’s on them for not performing for the rest of the season after starting 16-6.
The Yankees were a bottom half defensive team in baseball this year, ranked 19th with -3.8 Defensive Runs Above Average (according to FanGraphs), 15th in Defensive Runs Saved, and 15th in Revised Zone Rating (which measures the proportion of balls hit into a fielder’s zone that he successfully converted into an out). Since we’re trying to look back on what went wrong for the Yankees in the regular season, it’s worth noting that the Yankees did not get much defensive production out of Gleyber Torres and Aaron Hicks, who man two of the most important defensive positions on the diamond.
Gleyber Torres is not a great fit at shortstop, and we saw why this past season. Torres had the worst Defensive Runs Above Average rating on the team this season (-3.4) while manning the shortstop position. For such a key defensive position, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Yankees can continue to put Gleyber Torres at shortstop for the future, barring any major defensive improvements. In fact, I even wrote an article before the season started making a case for the Yankees to move D.J to shortstop, I think he could have at least replicated Gleyber’s season.
And Gleyber’s performance at shortstop is likely why you should not be surprised should the Yankees let LeMahieu walk. A good defensive shortstop is a key to any successful team, just look at Willy Adames for the Rays, who has made a handful of game-saving plays thus far in the Postseason. We’ve heard early murmurs of the Yankees eyeing somebody like Andrelton Simmons to man the shortstop position. If it means losing D.J, it is not the worst thing. Gleyber can move back to second, the Yankees avoid overpaying DJ for production that likely won’t be replicated, and the Yankees can rest easy knowing they have an affordable option that can play the shortstop position well.
An otherwise solid defensive outfielder for his entire career, Aaron Hicks posted a concerning -3.3 Defensive Runs Above Average in 2020. Perhaps his age is catching up to him. He has also noticeably worked on muscling up the last few years (and has faced a slew of injuries), which may have hindered his ability to glide around the outfield. It’s a tough thing to deal with, but the Yankees have two below-average defensive players at two of the most important defensive positions on a baseball field. Hicks has not had a negative Def rating since 2014 with the Twins, and in 2017 with the Yankees he posted a 6.4 Defensive Runs Above Average. It may be time to try a different option in center field if Hicks can’t right the ship, perhaps Mike Tauchman?
If you have read my articles before, you know that I am a big-time Gary Sanchez defender. I think he has every ability to continue to sure up his defense and return to form as the solid hitter that he is. But for the first time in a while, I am sensing some serious doubt from the Yankees when it comes to Gary’s role on the team, and I can’t blame them. Gary did, in fact, improve his framing this year. He had a -6.8 FRM rating last season and followed that up with just a -0.8 rating this season. However, he had his worst career season in terms of Defensive Runs Saved (-4), and allowed five passed balls in 41 games, whereas the allowed only 7 in 90 games last season. But that’s always been the case with Gary. He’ll improve upon one thing, and then regress in another. When you aren’t a great defensive catcher, and instead are in the lineup for your offense (which was nonexistent in 2020), the team that employs you has every right to be worried. Given the fact that Kyle Higashioka is in fact a starter worthy catcher in the MLB, I wouldn’t be totally surprised to see the Yankees turn to Higgy to start next season. If Gary can’t hit, then he’s practically useless.
To wrap up this part of our series on trying to find what went wrong, I think it’s important to realize just how lucky the Yankees were last season to get the production that they did out of their replacements. I also think that made many people jaded as to what backups can do. We saw this year what can happen when your depth doesn’t perform. A 16-6 team turned into a 21-21 team practically overnight, and the Yankees seemingly never fully recovered. They played themselves into tough early playoff matchups and ultimately fell short.
I think we also learned that defense is key to being a good baseball team, all you have to do is look at the team that beat them in the ALDS. When some of your worst defensive players are manning center field, catcher, and shortstop, it should probably tell you that some changes need to be made. What the Yankees really need to is become a cleaner team. They may not hit 40 home runs or have a .900 OPS, but players like Andrelton Simmons are so valuable. You may think defense is something to scoff at or something that shouldn’t be overly valued, but in many ways, it’s one of the biggest things holding the Yankees back.