Heading into this spring, the New York Yankees were expected to be one of the best teams in baseball. They had one of the best pitching staffs in the MLB, a powerful lineup, the second-highest payroll in the game, and a 91 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to the projection system at FanGraphs. On paper, at least, there was no reason the Bombers wouldn’t be great.
But we’re two and a half months into the season, and the Yankees are decidedly not great. They’re hovering just a hair above .500 at 33–32 and have slid to fourth place in the American League East. The team’s playoff odds have sunk to just 44 percent. Manager Aaron Boone is having the kinds of testy exchanges with reporters that sometimes precipitate managers getting fired.
What’s wrong? And will it get better? Here’s a deeper look at some of the issues plaguing the team so far this season.
The Yankees have had a lot of medical issues.
118 MPH 😱
A vintage Stanton rocket. pic.twitter.com/Czeu8zQHXf
— MLB (@MLB) April 24, 2021
Less than three months into the season, the Yankees have already had 14 players spend time on the injured list, including three players with two stints apiece. The injured Yankees have included more than half the starting lineup at one point or another. An entire outfield’s worth of sluggers in Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, and Aaron Hicks have been out. Shortstop Gleyber Torres, third baseman Gio Urshela, and first baseman Luke Voit have missed time, too, as have starting pitchers Luis Severino and Corey Kluber. Severino hasn’t even pitched yet this year, and he just hurt his groin during a rehab assignment while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
A range of baseball injuries, as well as a bizarre COVID outbreak that infected several vaccinated players, contributed to the absences on the team. The Yankees have had a ton of bad luck health-wise, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll be less healthy as the season continues. That’s one area where they stand to improve.
But many of their top players have simply underperformed.
Judge breaks out. 😳 pic.twitter.com/aHwgEnqO7Z
— MLB (@MLB) May 11, 2021
Even when the team is healthy, most players have only been decent—and for the Yankees, that’s well below normal. The team’s best player in the abbreviated 2020 season, second baseman DJ LeMahieu, has declined from one of the best hitters in baseball to more or less average. Stanton has been fine but far from the titanic slugger we’ve seen in the past. Hicks didn’t give the offense much of anything even when he was healthy, which he no longer is. Judge is still destroying the ball and leads the team with 15 homers, but right now he’s the only hitter worth getting excited about.
In theory, this shouldn’t last for long. Hicks is probably out for the season, but if history is any indication, Stanton will eventually start crushing the ball. Voit should return from a stint on the injured list soon. Urshela, Torres, and catcher Gary Sánchez have all hit at about the league average this year (their “adjusted runs created” figures are sitting around the average number of 100). They should get better than that, and so should the struggling LeMahieu.
The pitching staff is in a similar situation. So far, ace Gerrit Cole has been brilliant (he has a 2.31 earned run average in 13 starts) and fellow starter Jordan Montgomery has also been solid. The Yanks have gotten very little from the rest of the rotation, however. Offseason trade acquisition Jameson Taillon, who figured to be a quality No. 2 option behind Cole, has a 5.74 ERA in 12 starts. Taillon is much better than that and should eventually show it, but his performance to date is concerning.
The Yankees have the misfortune of being in the brutal AL East, and that (probably) won’t get easier.
'Cause you're hot then you're Cole pic.twitter.com/fps7awujy5
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) May 22, 2021
FanGraphs predicts the Yankees will have the second-best record in the majors from here on out—winning 56 of their final 97 games. That projection recognizes that the Yankees have all the makings of an elite team, particularly once the injured list starts to shrink.
Of course, the games they’ve already played still count, and elsewhere in their division, teams are pulling ahead. The Tampa Bay Rays have a league-best 42 wins. They’re 8.5 games ahead of the Yankees and cruising toward October. The Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays (led by Vladimir Guerrero Jr.) are also outpacing the Bombers. The AL West has two great teams in the Houston Astros and Oakland Athletics; they’re both well ahead of the Yankees at the moment. It’s not hard to imagine the American League running out of wild card spots (there are just two) for the Yankees to claim.
Even if the Yankees win 60 percent of their games from this point on—an extremely high win rate—they’d finish with 91 wins. That would probably put them in the playoffs, but it’s not certain. Anything less than elite play for the rest of the year would give the Yankees almost no chance of making the playoffs. The clock is ticking.
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