There are slumps, there are bumps in the road, and then there’s what’s unfolded in the Bronx the past month: An utter collapse from a World Series-ready New York Yankees team that until the second half was flirting with historical greatness.
Panic mode, activated.
OK, so this mystifying stretch of bad baseball is certainly cause for concern. And Yankees fans thirsting for the club’s first title since 2009 might have thought a relatively free ride back to the Fall Classic was in the offing after the team lapped the field in the first half.
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Nope, that’s not happening. If this Yankee skid – they are 4-14 since Aug. 2, 10-20 in the second half – that brought them back to the pack has dredged up anything, it’s two questions that may not be answered until mid-October:
Just how good are they? And just how mortifying is this cold spell?
As their season heats up yet again with a second round of the Subway Series against the New York Mets starting Monday night, let’s explore.
Why are the Yankees suddenly bad?
Statistically, as the song says, it’s a little bit of everything. Yet if you’ve watched this game for a minute, you know that for all the glamour of the long ball and the numbing quantification of analytics, starting pitching remains its backbone.
And that’s perhaps the most important 180 in the club’s funk.
Hitters will slump, sometimes en masse, and the Yankees are on a bad one right now – three or fewer runs in 13 of their last 17 games. Slugger Anthony Rizzo is batting .173 with three homers this month, while DJ LeMahieu has posted a .668 OPS and one homer. Third baseman Josh Donaldson’s 98 OPS plus for the year drops him below the realm of league average hitter. DH Giancarlo Stanton and his .498 slugging percentage are out on a rehab assignment, recovering from an Achilles injury.
And season-long sinkholes at shortstop and left field are even more glaring when the big boys scuffle.
But all is possible with run prevention, and a softening of the starting pitchers’ performance is probably the greater long-term concern.
New York’s 4-14 slide has coincided with their starters posting a 4.65 ERA, a far cry from the 2.78 mark through May. While the rotation’s 1.09 WHIP this month has been in line with the rest of the season, their 7.69 strikeouts per nine is a 17% drop from the group’s 9.24 mark through July.
The biggest regression likely comes from right-hander Jameson Taillon, whose ERA has leaped more than half a run (3.86 to 4.45) from the first to the second half. His strikeout-walk ratio has tumbled from 7.8 through May to 2.78 this month, as he’s issued more free passes (13) in July and August than he did the previous three months combined (11). The club could really use Luis Severino, who made 16 mid-season starts until a lat injury sidelined him into mid-September. Why Severino? He’s striking out nearly 10 batters per nine innings, greatly minimizing the randomness of balls in play, the better to camouflage his own team’s offensive inadequacies.
Yet the rotation’s current configuration makes you wonder if the club should have left well enough alone.
Was the trade deadline a waste of time?
Maybe. The Yankees made one of the more unusual deals at the deadline, shipping off a mid-rotation starter (Jordan Montgomery) for a center fielder (Harrison Bader) who’s injured until at least September.
Sure, you could see them working. New York imported right-hander Frankie Montas from Oakland and immediately envisioned a shutdown guy for the postseason. Montas struck out more than a batter per inning this season and six years in Oakland. By August, the Yankees were not scheming to win the AL East but rather to knock off the hated Astros in the ALCS.
In analyzing the Yankees’ recent playoff failures, Montgomery represented more of the same – a contact-friendly lefty who provided quality innings from April to September but was far from indomitable come October. They couldn’t beat the Astros in the 2019 ALCS with J.A. Happ and James Paxton taking the ball, and stumbled in the 2020 ALDS with Happ and Montgomery himself hen-pecked by the Rays.
Montas, theoretically, could quiet Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman’s October noise by preventing them from putting the ball in play in the first place.
Trouble is, he’s been a mess since the Yankees acquired him.
The Yankees have lost two of his three starts, and the only time he’s seen the sixth inning, he gave up six earned runs to the fast-closing Blue Jays. While Montas has always posted encouraging peripheral statistics, he was consistently inconsistent with Oakland, and now opens himself up to the “Can he pitch in New York?” narrative that falls somewhere between trope and truth.
Funny, that’s at least partially the reasoning behind shipping out slugger Joey Gallo after a 12-month Bronx stint that proved the most fruitless stretch in his career. Gallo has at least partially righted himself with the Dodgers, where he acknowledged it’s nice to see people “walking around in flip-flops,” while his deadline replacement, Andrew Benintendi, has been so-so.
Benintendi did not homer until Sunday, his 23rd game as a Yankee, and has a .211 average and .691 OPS. He might be fine. Montas, too, might straighten it out, and in a couple of months, quiet a Minute Maid Park crowd out for Yankee blood.
But for the moment, both are leaving open the question of how they might perform as Yankees – which, we are told over and over, is a different kind of pressure than in other major league markets.
Is any of this the manager’s fault?
Managing the Yankees remains something of a no-win situation even in the best of times, and castigating Aaron Boone has grown more chic as the Yankees have floundered. While publicly affable and steady, Boone has not hid from the criticism, ascending to the top step of the dugout when Yankee Stadium fans chanted that he should be fired last week.
At this point, he can’t win for losing. A pair of fiery press conferences over the weekend that included a pounding of the table in front of him might have mollified some of the boobirds, but also invited criticism from haters who presumed the gesture was merely for show.
In reality, there’s only so much blame to be assigned to the manager.
Lest we forget, Boone was hired to better reflect the wishes and strategies of a front office that felt Joe Girardi did not hew to said principles often enough (which is to say, virtually all of the time). There’s little to suggest Boone has “lost the clubhouse,” and it’s instructive to heed the words of fired Angels manager Joe Maddon, who broke down the plight of the modern manager in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.
“It’s at the point where some GM should really just put a uniform on and go down to the dugout, or their main analytical membrane, he should go down to the dugout,” Maddon said. “Because they try to work this middle man kind of a thing. And what happens is when the performance isn’t what they think it should be, it’s never about the acquisitional process. It’s always about the inability of coaches and managers to get the best out of a player. And that’s where this tremendous disconnect is formed.”
But you can’t boo the quants, right?
Can anybody come to the rescue?
Whoa, hold on there.
This is not a club in need of an intervention, even as their AL East lead shrinks from a season-high 15 ½ games on July 8 to the current eight-game edge over the Blue Jays and Rays.
Yet with the deadline passed, the club will certainly benefit from Oswaldo Cabrera’s fresh blood.
One of two prized shortstop prospects (the more highly touted Anthony Volpe is still a ways away), Cabrera debuted on Aug. 17 and has already appeared at shortstop, third base and right field – and that’s hardly a coincidence.
It’s past time that several Yankee bats be put on notice. Donaldson is fading, shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa is still catching the ball but not hitting (one homer, 82 adjusted OPS) to match his steady but unspectacular defense and Aaron Hicks (.215, .636 OPS) remaining lost at the plate. Cabrera may not cure all, or any, of these woes, but his athleticism and optionality, as the smart kids like to say, will help rouse a team that’s at least momentarily stagnant.
Does any of this matter?
Possibly not! The Yankees remain overwhelming favorites to win the East, and an upcoming seven-game road trip to Oakland and Anaheim might be the perfect time to get right away from the city lights.
And they can look to history for several similar plights.
In 2017, the Dodgers were nearly unbeatable, 91-36 on Aug. 25 and outscoring opponents by more than three runs a game.
Then, they lost 16 of their next 17 games.
Part of it was workshopping – the Dodgers hoped to convert rookie Walker Buehler into a power reliever for the postseason, a gambit that failed. But a dominant team suddenly could not win, casting doubt as October neared.
And then, the Dodgers walloped the NL playoff field and took Houston to seven games in the (now-disputed) 2017 World Series.
Heck, the Yankees can look at their own history – 2000, when the two-time defending champs went 3-15 down the stretch, winning a pedestrian 87 games, looking old and played out.
And then they won the World Series.
There’s no telling how this group might finish. If nothing else, they certainly know how quickly fortunes can turn – for better or worse.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB standings: What’s wrong with the Yankees? Panic mode, activated.