After a shaky start to the 2021 season, the New York Yankees have gotten back to the business of winning recently, with victories in nine of their previous 12 games (including Tuesday’s 7-3 defeat of the Houston Astros). Mostly because of their superior talent — and partly because it takes forever to know if a baseball team’s underlying quality has truly changed anyway — the Yankees still rank second in our MLB Elo ratings, with the second-best probability of winning the World Series.
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Nevertheless, the team has frustrated its fans early on with more than just regular, garden-variety underperformance. At times, New York has showcased a seeming inability to execute the classic “little things” that help teams become more than the sum of their parts.
So are the Yankees truly lacking in fundamental soundness? Let’s investigate, breaking things down into rankings across multiple metrics in three different categories:
The Yankees’ offense has been generally mediocre so far this season, ranking 22nd in runs per game, 15th in OPS and 20th in slugging. But there are other important indicators below the surface of those broad metrics, basics like the ability to put the ball in play and advance runners when the situation calls for it, as well as cashing in on prime scoring opportunities and avoiding double plays. And when it comes to those basics, New York grades out especially poorly.
For instance, when given the chance to either advance a runner from second base with zero outs or to score a runner from third with fewer than two outs — incidentally, the kinds of situational plays that come in particularly handy under MLB’s current extra-inning rules — New York has a success rate of just 41.1 percent, third-lowest in baseball. Relatedly, the Yankees also have MLB’s worst rate (18.1 percent) of “productive outs” — i.e., outs that advance and/or score baserunners.
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All outs are bad, of course, and they should be avoided whenever possible. But if you have to make an out, some can at least be useful in helping you score runs. This Yankee lineup has struggled to make the most of those simple chances to add offense around the margins, which might help explain why they’ve been held scoreless in 74.8 percent of innings this season, the ninth-highest rate in MLB, despite all their hitting talent. Another reason: They own the league’s seventh-highest rate of grounding into double plays (12.3 percent).
One fundamental area where the Yankees don’t get enough credit is in avoiding strikeouts. Despite the whiff-happy reputation of sluggers Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, New York’s strikeout rate of 22.8 percent actually ranks seventh-lowest in MLB. The league as a whole strikes out on over 24 percent of plate appearances, so maybe that’s just a sign that every player needs to dig up their old Tom Emanski tapes and recommit to the basics of making contact. But the Yankees are no more lacking in that area than most teams.
With their penchant for bouncing into inning-ending twin-killings and inability to squeeze every run out of their scoring opportunities, however, the Yankees’ lack of situational skills are costing them. According to FanGraphs, only the Dodgers, Tigers, Blue Jays and Cubs have added less value in the clutch — meaning in high-leverage situations, relative to normal ones — than the Yankees. They’re also scoring 0.32 fewer runs per game than we’d expect from a team with their underlying hitting statistics, the third-biggest shortfall in the league.
Running the bases
As much as the Yankees have struggled with their hitting fundamentals this season, they’ve been even worse with their baserunning.
According to an average of wins above replacement metrics from FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com,1 the Yankees have been the worst baserunning team in baseball so far this year. Among New York’s 10 regular hitters,2 only three — Gleyber Torres, Aaron Hicks and (perhaps surprisingly) Gary Sánchez — rate as above-average on the basepaths. Stanton (-2.0 runs) has been the single least valuable runner in the league, while Gio Urshela (-1.6) and Judge (-1.5) rank seventh- and ninth-worst, respectively.
They’ve earned all of those rankings. Because in just about every baserunning category, the Yankees rank either last in baseball or close to it.
New York has the league’s lowest rate of taking extra bases (33 percent) when opportunities present themselves. It also owns the league’s worst per-baserunner rate (4.6 percent) of making outs while running the bases. As a result, only 26 percent of Yankee runners eventually come around to score, the fourth-lowest rate of any team. Even granting that the Yankees are not an especially fast team, fundamental mistakes on the basepaths help explain why New York ranks so low in scoring despite having a respectable .319 on-base percentage (eighth-best in MLB).
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One final area of fundamental baseball in which the Yankees have struggled is on defense — a recurring problem for the team in recent years.
Yes, New York does boast the eighth-best fielding percentage of any team, attesting to the fundamental skill of not committing errors. But a deeper look at the metrics shows a team with a number of liabilities in the field. According to WAR, the Yankees have been the fifth-worst defensive team in MLB so far this season, ahead of only the A’s, Tigers, Cubs and Angels. This comes on the heels of finishing 10th-worst last season and 11th-worst in 2019.
Behind the plate, Sánchez continues to be one of the worst defensive catchers in baseball, with only a 13 percent rate of gunning down would-be base-stealers and the 10th-worst framing runs added of any catcher. While DJ LeMahieu and Urshela have been roughly average at the corners — and Torres has been quite sharp at shortstop — second baseman Rougned Odor, who was picked up from the Rangers in early April, has been among the league’s worst fielders at the position. (He was also hurt on a nasty play at home plate Tuesday night, so the Yankees might need to find another solution to play second anyway.)
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In the outfield, Judge, Hicks and Clint Frazier have all rated as subpar this season by fielding runs above average,3 with Brett Gardner grading out as average. By just about every measure, the Yankees’ outfield looks like a big defensive weakness that could cost the team a lot of runs going forward.
Fundamentally speaking, fielding remains a relatively underappreciated area where some teams (such as the division-rival Tampa Bay Rays) pick up a huge edge on the rest of the league. But in the Yankees’ case, it’s another place where they are losing ground.
Adding up the “fundies”
All told, the Yankees fall short in many of the categories we would consider among the “fundamentals.” They struggle at situational hitting, give away too many outs on the bases and play poor defense. But are they the worst fundamental team in baseball?
Saved by their lack of errors and surprisingly low strikeout rate, the Yankees are not the most fundamentally unsound team in baseball. That honor goes to the Detroit Tigers, who are also the worst team in baseball. (No amount of fundamentals would save their season!)
But the Yankees rank second-worst, a testament to how deficiencies in the little things can undermine an otherwise great team. Although it might not matter in the end — again, New York has a 13 percent chance to win its first World Series title since 2009 — an inability to execute the fundamentals is never a positive for any championship contender.
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