“A lot of good things happened tonight,” New York Yankees star Aaron Judge told reporters after the team’s Sunday night game against the rival Boston Red Sox. “A lot of good at-bats, a lot of clutch at-bats late in the game, guys picking each other up.”
If those sounded like comments after a New York win — well, they weren’t. In fact, the Yankees had just been swept by the Red Sox, part of a stretch of 10 losses in 13 games that dipped New York’s playoff odds below 50 percent for the first time all season.
And yet, Judge held true to two core tenets of this Yankee era under manager Aaron Boone: staying positive and trusting the process. “There’s a lot of positives out of this game, even though we didn’t get the win,” Judge said, in what could easily be his team’s motto so far this season.
It’s a mindset that comes straight from the dugout. Since his first day at the helm in New York back in 2017, Boone has preached patience — and a belief that talented players will win out if given the tools to succeed. “I think I’ll be, as a manager, someone who isn’t chasing after wins every day,” he said when he was officially introduced as Joe Girardi’s successor. “I want to get lost into the process. By doing that, I think we have a chance to get the best out of our players.”
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Boone’s philosophy was easy enough to trust when the team went 203-121 over his first two seasons as manager with at least 100 wins in each of them — even though the team fell short in the postseason both years. (He even endeared himself to fans in 2019 with a memorable hot-mic rant about his hitters being “savages in the box.”) But last season, the Yankees wouldn’t have made the playoffs except for MLB’s special 16-team postseason format, and this year’s version was even worse through the same number of games. Four seasons into Boone’s tenure as manager, fans and the media have been getting impatient with the results not catching up to the process.
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Although the Yankees’ bats came alive against the struggling Minnesota Twins this week, something is amiss in New York that goes deeper than just sloppy fundamentals. Their pitchers boast the American League’s third-best ERA,1 but the offense is scoring a mere 3.87 runs per game this season, which ranks second-to-last in the AL and is nearly 13 percent worse than league average. How bad is that? If we index every Yankee team’s runs-per-game relative to average, the 2021 edition is the sixth-worst offensive club in franchise history — and the worst since 1990.
|Runs Per game|
The reasons New York isn’t scoring are myriad. Tied for the 12th-worst batting average in MLB, the Yankees rarely take extra bases, leave runners stranded at an alarming rate and get thrown out on the bases more than any other team. Like the crosstown-rival Mets, some of the Yankees’ struggles are probably due to bad luck in how they’ve been bunching (or scattering) their hits and walks within innings: According to base runs, the Yankees would be scoring over a third of a run more per game if they had average sequencing luck. (No team has been unluckier in that regard this year.) But more disturbing is the way a team built primarily around the home run — 50.9 percent of New York’s runs came directly off homers in 2019 and 2020 — is hitting them at such a lackluster rate. As a result, the Yankees’ slugging percentage ranks 10th-worst in baseball, a shocking number for a lineup theoretically stacked with scary power hitters.
Those are the results, of course. As for Boone’s process, the numbers do speak somewhat better for the quality of the Yankees’ approach. They have baseball’s No. 1 rate of getting into 3-0 and 3-1 counts, and their average exit velocity and hard-hit rate on contact each rank among MLB’s top three. Those stats, as much as any others, quantify Boone’s focus on commanding the strike zone and making pitchers pay for throwing over the plate. (The only hang-up in that strategy might be that New York is tied for sixth-worst in contact rate on pitches in the zone this season.) And according to Baseball Savant, all but one (Giancarlo Stanton) of the Yankees’ 14 most-used hitters2 have a higher expected weighted on-base average (wOBA) — based on Statcast metrics — than their actual wOBA. In other words, the process has genuinely been better than the results.
But with Boone’s seat growing hotter, will it matter? Before the pair of wins over Minnesota, oddsmakers had him ranked as the MLB manager most likely to be the first fired this season — something that likely would have happened a long time ago if the famously fickle George Steinbrenner were still alive and running the show.
Then again, as Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay pointed out recently, the team’s problems run deeper than managerial strategy. General manager Brian Cashman’s notably righty-heavy lineup3 has had the platoon advantage in just 44 percent of plate appearances, the second-worst rate in baseball. A pair of injuries to first baseman Luke Voit had more ripple effects than we might expect for a team with a $202 million payroll — forcing DJ LeMahieu to slide over and primarily play first (hurting his defensive value), while the replacement-level Rougned Odor took over as the regular at second base. Similarly, an injury to Aaron Hicks ceded center field to the 37-year-old Brett Gardner and left field to Clint Frazier — or, increasingly, to converted DH/third baseman Miguel Andújar, with Frazier playing right field in place of Judge, who will DH in place of Stanton on his rest days.
As currently constructed, this roster is not suited to such improvisational lineup-building tactics. But that’s the current state of the Yankees, who had MLB’s highest payroll last season and spent the fourth-most in free agency of any team — mainly to retain the services of LeMahieu (who has regressed from a 1.011 OPS in 2020 to a .650 mark in 2021) and Gardner (who’s fallen from .747 to .599) and to add starter Corey Kluber (who threw a no-hitter last month but has since landed on the long-term injured list). As a result, only 11.9 percent of New York’s wins above replacement4 have come from newcomers to the roster this year, the sixth-lowest share in baseball — and a number that may not change anytime soon, particularly since ownership seems solidly committed to staying under MLB’s luxury-tax threshold.
For the rest of their value, that means the Yankees are counting on their returning players — and it also means trusting the process to eventually deliver better results.
“There’s urgency,” Boone said in his postgame press conference on Sunday when asked about the state of his team. “But we’re in control of our season and our destiny, very much so.”
Perhaps the Yankees’ offensive explosion against Minnesota is a sign that New York is starting to turn a corner. But with Boone’s optimism and belief facing its greatest test in his career as a manager, it still remains to be seen if his team can buy enough time for the results to consistently match the process.
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