The Yankees still have plenty of time to make people eat crow, but right now they look like a slightly remixed version of the feast-or-famine team that floundered last season.
If their minimalist offseason works out, and the Yankees charge into the playoffs without the elite shortstop or No. 2 starting pitcher they looked destined for last October, most of this will be forgotten. They sure seem to be a few pieces away from a complete puzzle, though. While the season needs time to develop, the feelings that come from watching this team are still a bit off, something that is arguably more important this time of year than any statistics.
But while we’re on the subject, let’s look into those statistics. The Yankees won 92 games last year, but many of those wins were in spite of their offense rather than because of it. The 2021 Yankees slashed a collective .237/.322/.407. The batting average placed them 23rd out of 30 teams. Only five teams struck out at a higher clip. They could be considered above average, but only by the tiniest hairs on their clean-shaven chins. The Yankees posted a 101 wRC+ last season; 100 is the average.
Now, even with Anthony Rizzo lighting his reunion tour on fire, the Yankees have a 95 wRC+ through their first 13 games. Josh Donaldson replacing Gio Urshela and the two defensive specialists in Gary Sanchez’s old spot mark the biggest on-field changes from last year’s disappointment. The club also hired new hitting coaches, one of whom came with a snappy tagline: hit strikes hard.
That idea has not been borne out in reality yet. The Yankees are swinging at 35% of pitches outside the strike zone, second-worst in MLB. With the important admission that it’s still very, very early, the Yankees have reversed course in the plate discipline department. Last year their chase rate was a discerning 28.3%, trailing only the Padres, Giants and Dodgers for best eye in the league.
When they are swinging at strikes, as hitting coach Dillon Lawson preaches, a lot of the time they’re not hitting them at all. In their first 13 games, the Bombers have an 83.1 Z-Contact%, or rate of contact on pitches inside the strike zone. That’s almost identical to the 83.0% they posted last year, which was 29th in the league.
While you can’t put very much stock in those numbers in April, the losses at this stage of the season still count all the same. Getting shut out in their two most recent losses — once by Michael Pineda and the Tigers, once to lose a series to the literal Baltimore Orioles — conjured up memories of the group that scored zero or one run 20 times last year.
To make matters worse, the Mets have been riding high thanks, in large part, to the moves they made while the Yankees mostly stood pat. After losing the Wild Card Game last fall, Yankee general manager Brian Cashman said he wanted the team to be more athletic. Starling Marte certainly fits that bill, but he’s scoring from first on doubles and stealing bases in Queens rather than the Bronx.
Donaldson likely wasn’t brought in for his athleticism, but it’s worth noting that the Yankees’ new third baseman ranks in the 13th percentile of MLB sprint speed. Partly because of his decaying speed, Donaldson galumphed his way to 22 double plays last season, second-most in the American League. The Yankees have already grounded into 11 double plays this year — second in the AL as of Friday morning — with Donaldson rolling into a particularly slow-footed rally killer during an early season loss to Toronto, another shutout.
Eduardo Escobar, the Mets’ new third baseman, is up in the 74th percentile of sprint speed. In many ways, Escobar (a switch-hitter who can play multiple infield positions, takes his walks, and is a savvy base runner) is exactly what the Yankees needed.
Since this seems to matter so much to the current Yankee front office, he also would have cost a lot less money than Donaldson, who he’s also three years younger than. Isiah Kiner-Falefa certainly adds a dash of athleticism to the Yankees, and he’s off to a fast start, but the Gold Glover has never been anyone’s idea of a good hitter over a full season.
Until the Yankees prove that it can work, their offseason strategy will be picked apart mercilessly. That’s the nature of playing in Yankee Stadium, where the microscope lens gets tighter and tighter with each loss, and where fans are also currently being treated to the same type of baseball they thought would bring a dramatic roster overhaul.
Instead, it’s more of the same, while the Mets are the toast of the town. All of this comes with the caveat of earliness, but right now it feels like a shift in the city’s baseball hierarchy is upon us.
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