Unpacking the Yankees’ Three Week Nosediveon September 8, 2020 at 6:21 pm

Unpacking the Yankees’ Three Week Nosedive

On August 17, the New York Yankees finished up a 6-3 victory against the Boston Red Sox and extended their win streak to six games. The team was 16-6 on the season and had the best record in baseball. They then commenced a seven-game losing streak on their way to a three week stretch during which the club went 5-14, bringing its season mark to 21-20. In a 162-game season, 19 games is less than 12% of the season, but this year, it represents nearly a third of the season and nearly half of the team’s games played thus far. With just 19 games left to go, another 5-14 stretch would push the Yankees out of the playoffs. While that scenario isn’t likely — our Playoff Odds have the Yankees at 89% odds entering games today — it’s worth exploring what’s gone wrong and whether we can expect it to continue.

To take a broad view, here are the Yankees’ major-league ranks with the season split between their good and bad stretches:

The offense and relief pitching have fallen off a cliff while the starting pitching has remained middle of the pack. It’s fair to say that the rotation should be better, but it has been about as effective during the free fall as it was when things were going well. Gerrit Cole has had a run of bad starts and James Paxton has been dinged up; Michael King has had one good start and one bad one during this stretch, while Jordan Montgomery has had some clunkers, too. Still, Masahiro Tanaka has pitched well and Deivi Garcia and J.A. Happ have turned in some decent starts. The rotation has underperformed expectations the entire season (Yankees starters ranked first on our preseason Positional Power Rankings), but they’ve been more average than bad pretty consistently. Given that the Yankees have had four doubleheaders in the last three weeks, the rotation has arguably held up pretty well. If Paxton were healthy and Cole was pitching as expected, the rotation would be one of the best in baseball. That they aren’t is hurting the team, but it’s hardly the sole source of New York’s troubles.

First, let’s take a look at the hitting:

Through mid-August, Gleyber Torres, Gary Sanchez, and Brett Gardner were struggling a bit while everybody else played incredibly well. Cumulatively, the entire team was playing at an All-Star level. Here’s what’s happened since then:

The bottom line is bad, but let’s first look at the list of players. Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Torres have been subbed out for Clint Frazier, Tyler Wade and Mike Ford. Frazier has hit credibly, but Wade and Ford have been awful. Add in more poor hitting from Gardner along with Aaron Hicks and Michael Tauchman slumping, and there’s only so much Luke Voit and Gio Urshela can do. If Tauchman, Wade, and Ford were hitting like average big leaguers, or if Stanton, Judge, and Torres were still in the lineup and putting up just average lines, the Yankees’ top 10 players by plate appearance would be putting up a 105 wRC+. Sanchez and Gardner have certainly struggled all season, but the Yankees’ offense is missing its top-three projected batters, which is having a much bigger impact, particularly compared to the start of the season.

And it isn’t just Stanton, Judge, and Torres who are missing from the list; DJ LeMahieu has missed time as well. While the Yankees had seven players averaging more than three plate appearances per game through August 17, just three have meet that mark since. That the Yankees’ offense is down isn’t a big surprise. On August 17, Jay Jaffe wrote about the team’s injuries and noted that its depth was about to get tested. That piece went up before Torres missed two weeks with quad and hamstring issues. The Yankees’ got by with their depth last season, but some of their saviors from last year, like Urshela and Tauchman, were already receiving decent playing time, while Tauchman has struggled and Ford has been unable to repeat last year’s performance. Wade isn’t performing that far off expectations. The team just doesn’t have as much depth among its position players as it did a year ago.

As for the bullpen, I think we can skip the beginning of the year numbers, but I’ll note that Chad Green, Adam Ottavino, and Zack Britton were all performing very well, and the team was succeeding despite not having Aroldis Chapman for much of the early going. Here’s how things have gone over the last three weeks, including only the bullpen’s significant contributors based on innings and the leverage index when they enter games:

Chapman has come back, but hasn’t had many opportunities and hasn’t performed well when he has. Green has had five good outings and three poor ones. Britton missed time with injury. Ottavino has had three good outings mixed with three bad ones. Any team getting poor performance out of their best four relievers is going to have a hard time getting outs at the end of games. Ottavino, Chapman, and Green have combined to blow seven save situations after doing so just 12 in total all of last year. That’s a little extreme, and not something we can expect going forward.

The Yankees are in a terrible stretch of baseball, and having such a stretch in a season that’s only 60 games long has probably cost them the division. It probably won’t keep costing them in terms of a playoff berth, but this bad stretch has been a total team effort. Their ace isn’t pitching like one. The team’s three best hitters are missing from the lineup, while others have struggled to step up. The best arms in their bullpen aren’t getting results commensurate with their talent or careers to date. All of that has come together for a very bad three weeks. The team can’t afford to have another three weeks like their last three, but we can probably expect the performance to tick up, particularly in the lineup and the bullpen. The Yankees only have to go .500 the rest of the way to make the playoffs, and then hope they’re healthy once they’re there.

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