There are slumps, there are bumps in the road, and then there’s what unfolded in the Bronx last month: An utter collapse by a World Series-ready New York Yankees team that until the second half flirted with historic greatness.
Panic mode, activated.
OK, this staggering amount of bad baseball is certainly cause for concern. And Yankees fans hungry for the club’s first title since 2009 might have thought a relatively free ride back to the Fall Classic was on the cards after the team exploded onto the field in the first half.
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No, that doesn’t happen. If this Yankee skid – they’re 4-14 since Aug. 2, 10-20 in the second half – that brought them back to the fold has ruined anything, it’s two questions that may not be answered until mid-October:
How good are they? And how scary is that cold?
As their season heats up again with a second round Subway Series against the New York Mets beginning Monday night, let’s explore.
Why are the Yankees suddenly bad?
Statistically, as the song goes, it’s a bit of everything. However, if you’ve watched this game for even a minute, you know that for all the glamor of the long ball and meaningless quantification of analytics, starting pitching remains its backbone.
And this is probably the most important 180 in club funk.
Hitters will go down, sometimes in droves, and the Yankees are in bad shape right now – three runs or fewer in 13 of their last 17 games. Slugger Anthony Rizzo is hitting .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. DH Giancarlo Stanton and his .498 slugging percentage are out on a rehab assignment, recovering from an Achilles injury.
And the single-season sinkholes at shortstop and left field are even more pronounced when the big boys square off.
But anything is possible with run prevention, and the diminishing output of starting pitchers is probably the biggest long-term concern.
New York’s 4-14 slide coincided with its starters posting a 4.65 ERA, well off their 2.78 mark through May. While the rotation’s 1.09 WHIP this month was in line with the rest of the season, the 7.69 strikeouts per nine is a 17% drop from the league mark of 9.24 through July.
The biggest regression likely comes from right-hander Jameson Taillon, whose ERA has jumped more than half a run (3.86 to 4.45) from the first to the second half. His strikeout-to-walk ratio dropped from 7.8 through May to 2.78 this month as he issued more free passes (13) in July and August than in the previous three months combined (11). The club could really use Luis Severino, who made 16 starts in the middle of the season until a hamstring injury sidelined him until mid-September. Why Severino? He strikes out nearly 10 balls per nine innings, greatly minimizing the randomness of balls in play, the better to camouflage his team’s offensive inadequacies.
However, the current configuration of the rotation makes you wonder if the club should have been left well enough alone.
Was the trade deadline a waste of time?
It can. The Yankees made one of the more unusual deals at the deadline, trading away a starting shortstop (Jordan Montgomery) for a center fielder (Harrison Bader) who is injured until at least September.
Of course, you could see them in action. New York brought in right-hander Frankie Montas from Oakland and immediately envisioned a shutdown type for the postseason. Montas had more than a hit per season this season and six years in Oakland. By August, the Yankees weren’t out to win the AL East, but rather to knock off the hated Astros in the ALCS.
Analyzing the Yankees’ recent playoff failures, Montgomery represented more of the same — a contact-friendly lefty who delivered quality innings from April to September but wasn’t indomitable in October. They couldn’t beat the Astros in the 2019 ALCS with JA Happ and James Paxton taking the ball, and stumbled in the 2020 ALDS with Happ and Montgomery himself getting pecked by the Rays.
Montas, in theory, could drown out the October noise of Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman, preventing them from putting the ball in play in the first place.
The problem 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 saw the sixth inning, he gave up six earned runs to the fast-closing Blue Jays. While Montas has always posted encouraging regional stats, he has been consistently inconsistent in Oakland and is now opening up to the “Can he compete in New York?” narrative that falls somewhere between trope and truth.
Funny, that’s at least partly the reasoning behind slugger Joey Gallo’s retirement after a 12-month stint in the Bronx that turned out to be the most fruitless run of his career. Gallo has at least partially corrected himself with the Dodgers, where he admitted it’s nice to see people “walking around in flip flops,” while his deadline replacement, Andrew Benintendi, was so much.
Benidenti didn’t homer until Sunday, his 23rd game as a Yankee, and has a .211 average and .691 OPS. He might be fine. Montas, too, can fix that, and in a few months, quiet a Minute Maid Park rallying for Yankee blood.
But for now, both leave open the question of how they might perform as Yankees — which, we’re told time and time again, is a different kind of pressure than in other major league markets.
Is it all the manager’s fault?
Yankees management remains something of a no-win situation, even in the best of times, and Aaron Boone’s rebuke has grown more elegant as the Yankees flounder. Although publicly polite and steady, Boone has not shied away from criticism, climbing to the highest step of the dugout when fans at Yankee Stadium chanted that he should be fired last week.
At this point, he can’t win to lose. A pair of fiery press conferences over the weekend that included a table slam in front of him may have calmed some of the fans, but they also drew criticism from haters who assumed the gesture was just a sure thing.
In reality, there are only so many responsibilities that should be assigned to the manager.
Lest we forget, Boone was hired to better reflect the desires and strategies of a front office that felt Joe Girardi wasn’t following said principles often enough (ie, almost all the time). There isn’t much to suggest that Boone has “lost the clubhouse,” and it’s instructive to listen to fired Angels manager Joe Maddon, who broke down the woes of the modern-day manager in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.
“It’s at the point where a GM would really have to put on a uniform and get down in the dugout, or in their primary analytical film, they’d have to get down in the dugout,” Maddon said. “Because they’re trying to kind of work out that middle man. And what happens is when the performance isn’t what they think it should be, it’s never about the acquisition process. It’s always about the inability of coaches and trainers to get the best out of a player. And that’s where this huge disconnect forms.”
But you can’t begrudge quantities, can you?
Can anyone come to the rescue?
Whoa, hang in there.
This isn’t a club that needs intervention, even though their AL East lead has dwindled from a season-high 15 ½ games on July 8 to today’s eight-game lead over the Blue Jays and Rays.
However, with the deadline passing, the club will certainly benefit from the fresh blood of Oswaldo Cabrera.
One of two prized shortstop prospects (the more touted Anthony Volpe is still a long way off), Cabrera debuted on August 17 and has already appeared at shortstop, third base and right field – and that’s no accident.
It’s past time to put several Yankee bats on notice. Donaldson is fading, Isiah Kiner-Falefa is still catching but not hitting (one homer, 82 adjusted OPS) to match his solid but unspectacular defense and Aaron Hicks (.215, .636 OPS) is still missing at the plate. Cabrera may not cure all, or any, of those ills, but his athleticism and optionality, as the smart kids like to say, will help spark a team that is at least momentarily stagnant.
Does it have any of these?
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 away from the city lights right away.
And they can look to history for many similar woes.
In 2017, the Dodgers were nearly undefeated, going 91-36 on August 25 and outscoring opponents by more than three runs per game.
They then lost 16 of their next 17 games.
Part of it was the workshop — the Dodgers hoped to turn rookie Walker Buehler into a power reliever for the postseason, a game that fell short. But a dominant team suddenly couldn’t win, raising doubts as October approached.
And then the Dodgers rolled into the NL playoff field and swept Houston in seven games in the (now moot) 2017 World Series.
Heck, the Yankees can look to their own history – 2000, when the two-time defending champs went 3-15, winning a pedestrian 87 games, looking old and played out.
And then they won the World Series.
There’s no telling how this team might end up. If anything, they certainly know how quickly fortunes can turn – for better or for worse.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB standings: What’s up with the Yankees? Panic mode, activated.