A stream of consciousness on the Yankees' disastrous 2021 season
Though the game itself is now largely devoid of lustre, the All-Star Break remains one of the defining milestones of any baseball season. It is a staging post, in many respects. A chance to pause, reflect and analyse the standings and statistics with a decent sample size in the bank. More than half the season is history, and teams are generally where they deserve to be – for good or ill. The standings do not lie, in other words, even if team representatives do.
For bedraggled fans of the New York Yankees, then, this All-Star Break promises to be a much-needed therapy session. Through the first 89 games of a turbulent season, the Bronx Bombers are 46-43, eight games adrift of the division lead. Once heralded as a potential pennant winner, the Yankees are mired in fourth place. And in many ways, that position flatters them, because this team has been nothing short of atrocious so far.
The Yankees are 0-6 against the Red Sox, their hated rival, this year. New York has struggled to stay above .500 against Tampa Bay, its annoying kryptonite, for the past three years. Oh, and the crosstown Mets have even beaten the addled pinstripers with ease, adding insult to injury in hideous fashion. There is seemingly no end to the misery.
Nevertheless, zooming out a little, things look even worse from a global perspective. The Yankees have won one division title since 2012. They have won just four AL East flags in 15 years. Meanwhile, the team’s world championship drought looks set to enter a 13th consecutive season, an interminable spell in the Bronx. From top to bottom, no matter how you dice it, this is a baseball franchise in disarray – rotten from the core on out – and something has to give before chronic neglect morphs into terminal decline.
What has gone wrong for the Yankees in 2021?
I was never optimistic about the 2021 Yankees. Indeed, we must finally lay to rest the narrative that this ballclub was a World Series favourite on Opening Day, and that the resultant carnage was totally unforeseen. Right from the start, this was a flawed baseball team – poorly constructed, poorly managed and poorly motivated. Masahiro Tanaka, the team’s erstwhile leader, was allowed to walk in winter free agency, and the Yankees replaced him with a bunch of spare parts from the scrap heap. Accordingly, those mythical computer projections of an easy saunter through the American League were way off, and that reality has played out through three-and-a-half months of abysmal baseball to date.
Among the lowlights so far, the Yankees were swept by Boston in a three-game Yankee Stadium series for the first time in a decade. They were swept by the lowly Detroit Tigers, a woeful team in transition. Against winning ballclubs - those with a record above .500 - the Yankees are a lukewarm 27-29. This team is inconsistent winning the games it should win, and it struggles to regularly win the games it must win. Right now, the script is so predictable that many people have stopped watching. They cannot take any more of this nonsense.
Not only do these Yankees lose with rare frequency, but they do so in the most abject, passive and insouciant ways imaginable – insulting the passion and perseverance of diehard fans. Once a timeless bastion of greatness, with the highest exacting standards, the Yankees have now become accustomed to mediocrity. From the top on down, they have become accepting of parity, rather than trying to fight it. So long a paragon of success and glory, the modern Yankees have become an apathetic mess lacking direction, and it is heartbreaking to watch such a proud institution atrophy before our eyes.
This team cannot hit; it can only slug intermittently. This team cannot manufacture runs; it can only loot them occasionally. This team cannot field; it can only make highlight reel plays in garbage time. And as for the fundamentals of baserunning, situational hitting and defensive strategy? Please – there has never been a worse Yankees team across those facets of the game in my lifetime.
To that end, I was born in 1994, and the Yankees last finished below .500 in 1992. Sure, there have been some terrible teams in the interim – see: 2013-2016 – but rarely have the Yankees so lacked baseball acumen and competitive instinct as they do right now. This team does not have a clue how to play winning baseball, and that will not change until the entire organisation is reconfigured. Stasis has set in on River Avenue, and radical action is needed to reverse its encroachment.
‘Fire Aaron Boone!’ Why Yankees fans are done with an unwatchable brand of baseball
It is often said that, over the course of a season, baseball teams take on the personality of their managers, rather like dogs resembling their owners. While much of that is baseless psychobabble, it is painfully true for the Yankees, whose skipper – Aaron Boone – is utterly inept and living on borrowed time.
Sure, people have long debated the relative significance of baseball managers, failing to reach consensus on their actual impact. Managers rarely win games, according to one school of thought, but they can certainly lose them. Moreover, while there are innumerable things a baseball manager cannot control – batters’ box impulses and fielding decisions, for example – there are certain things they can control, such as lineups, defensive alignments, bullpen management and baserunning aggressiveness. Boone struggles spectacularly in all of these aspects, while also failing to influence his team’s overall baseball ethos – how it thinks, feels and approaches each game.
According to BsR – Fangraphs’ proprietary baserunning metric, encompassing stolen bases, caught stealings, taking extra bases, basepath outs and other granular data – the Yankees are the worst baserunning team in baseball, and it is not especially close. Boone’s men have made 35 outs on the bases this season, second-worst in the majors. The Yankees have been thrown out at home plate 15 times, setting the big league pace, while also languishing dead last in extra-bases taken and stolen bases. All told, just 27% of pinstriped baserunners eventually score, the worst mark among American League clubs, speaking to a defective philosophy, idiotic decision-making, deficiencies of athleticism and zero appreciation for the minutiae of baseball.
Like most contemporary ballclubs, the Yankees defer to the supposed omnipotence of OPS and WAR. They covet, acquire and ride batters who hit the ball hard and get on base at above-average rates. That may seem like the glorious, logical endgame of Moneyball, with market efficiencies seeping from every pore, but there is more to baseball than walks, home runs and strikeouts. The math zealots will argue to the contrary, denigrating anyone who holds a traditionalist view, but the 2021 Yankees are living proof that numbers alone cannot win championships.
This front office – and, indeed, the advanced analytics community from which it was spawned – thinks it has mastered baseball, distilling a befuddling game into one concise formula for success, one efficient recipe for dominance. Guard outs like they are sacrosanct currency and wait for the three-run homer. In truth, though, I would rather see somebody get thrown out by five feet trying to steal a base – trying to make something happen – than flail unimaginatively at another splitter in the dirt. Baseball used to be art, and that was fun to watch. Now, it is pure science, and that is a draining chore to behold.
The Yankees do not teach their players how to play baseball. They just sit back and watch them sink or swim. It is not that the Yankees are entirely devoid of an organisational ethos, per se. It is just that their ethos is one-dimensional, myopic, stubborn, computer-driven and human-agnostic. There is no feel for baseball intangibles in this organisation, and the results are suitably dismal.
The Yankees sign players based on past statistics, plug them into lineups based on predictive projections, align them based on suggestive algorithms, and gaze at the results from behind a computer screen. They just let players be who they are – mercenary conduits to walks, home runs and strikeouts – rather than melding them into something else, something Yankee-like. They just let the math level out, for good or bad, rather than trying to tangibly alter the odds through heart and hustle.
For instance, on 42 occasions this season, the Yankees have struck out at least 10 times in a game. Thrice, they gave registered 15 punchouts, while the Washington Nationals struck out 17 Yankees in one May contest. This is all part of the plan, we are told. This is baseball in 2021. I do not care for those weak explanations. The proclivity with which this team strikes out is lazy and embarrassing. And perhaps more pertinently, it is incompatible with winning baseball games.
In 1950, the great Yogi Berra struck out just 12 times in 656 plate appearances for the Yankees. This season, Giancarlo Stanton eclipsed that mark in one nine-game stretch through late April. Of course, baseball has changed immeasurably between those two extremes, but when did it become okay – nay, expected – for guys to strike out so frequently and so carelessly? To go down swinging while wearing those fabled pinstripes was once seen as a humiliating failure, but now it is the norm. Some of these guys should be ashamed.
Yes, the Yankees have a decent OPS, ranking seventh in the American League. And yes, the Yankees draw more walks than any big league team except the Dodgers. But where has that gotten them? They are dead and buried right now, and we are only in July. The boom-or-bust, death-by-a-thousand-walks, three-run-homer model does not work. As a winning ideology, it is unsustainable – especially when pitchers are showing unprecedented levels of power, craft and guile. When will that penny finally drop for these star-crossed failures?
Only seven big league teams have scored fewer runs than the Yankees this season, but still they refuse to change their attitude or gameplan. Still, they are too arrogant to admit defeat, that their calculations are incorrect. In bygone times, such an anaemic offence would have tried everything to generate runs. Bunt, steal, hit-and-run, beat the shift. Not the omniscient Yankees, though. For them, even contemplating smallball is sacrilegious. And so, they keep bludgeoning their way to new levels of irrelevance.
All season long, the Yankees have attempted six sacrifice bunts. Six. They have also attempted just 25 steals – as a team. The Yankees have hit into the second-most double plays in baseball, while scoring the fewest runs from less-than-two-out, runner-on-third situations. Looking at productive outs percentage, meanwhile, the Yankees languish in 24th place, way adrift of the league average. Essentially, no matter how you draw it up, the Yankees are an unmitigated disaster, and time is running out to reverse the malaise.
Boone shuffles his batting order every day, but the results rarely change. DJ LeMahieu has hit leadoff and second. Aaron Judge has hit second, third and fifth. Gary Sánchez and Gleyber Torres have hit all over the place, while Stanton permanently clogs the designated hitter slot, forcing hot bats out of the lineup. At one point, the Yankees even had Rougned Odor hitting third despite a sub-.200 batting average. Surely that has never happened before in the team’s 120-year history.
On any given day, 36 men – including players and coaches – wear a Yankees uniform. Only three of them – Brett Gardner, Aroldis Chapman and bullpen catcher Mike Harkey – have ever won a World Series ring. What, therefore, qualifies 91% of these people to represent the New York Yankees, an organisation that demands championships? And how, quite frankly, can we expect them to win titles when they have shown such a documented propensity not to?
Working for the Yankees in any capacity used to be the pinnacle of a baseball career. Regardless of specialism – ballplayer, scout, coach, general manager, clubhouse attendant – only the best got to call Yankee Stadium home. You had to earn those pinstripes, usually by winning multiple crowns elsewhere. Now, though, there is no such requirement. These days – in baseball, as in life – it is considered insensitive to demand excellence, so we all just accept mediocrity. That way, nobody gets offended, and those in charge cannot be sued.
The Yankees’ bench coach, Carlos Mendoza, never played in the major leagues. The Yankees’ hitting coach, Marcus Thames, had a career .246 batting average – worse than Jacoby Ellsbury in pinstripes. Then we have the pitching coach, assistant hitting coach and catching coach – Matt Blake, PJ Piliterre and Tanner Swanson, respectively – none of whom played baseball above college level. I mean, seriously? How are these guys running the most illustrious team in sports?
Yet, quite remarkably, such nondescript coaches still have more fire than Boone, the actual manager. During one game against Boston a few weeks ago, Mendoza and Phil Nevin – the one Yankees coach with a respectable resume – were ejected for arguing an egregious blown strike call. Meanwhile, Boone sat on the bench, chattering timidly and trying to blow a bigger gumball. The optics were awful, but they were also sadly reflective of this tired regime.
In this regard, Boone is often labelled a great communicator, but is that genuinely true? Is he not the very embodiment of the Yankees’ flailing hierarchy – male, pale, Yale and stale? How can guys like Judge and Stanton relate to Boone? How can the Yankees’ Spanish-speaking players – led by Chapman, Torres, Odor, Sánchez and Gio Urshela – learn from this guy? And how, in all honesty, can fans listen to the same dull platitudes every single day?
Regardless of his managerial foibles, of course, Boone will retain an eternal place in Yankees lore for the pennant-clinching, walk-off home run he spanked against the Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. Boone is one of those Unlikely Yankee Heroes, like Raúl Ibañez, Scott Brosius, Chris Chambliss, Bucky Dent and Don Larsen. Deep down, he is a good man – and a good Yankee man – but the time has come for a new colonel in the Bronx.
Still, it will take something extraordinary for the Yankees to fire Boone. Why? Because he is a puppet controlled by the front office – told which buttons to press and which tropes to regurgitate in front of the microphones. Boone had been out of the game for almost a decade when the Yankees plucked him from the ESPN broadcast booth in 2017. He was – and is – a mouthpiece, and that is unlikely to change without root-and-branch reform.
‘Sell the team!’ Hal Steinbrenner, Yankees ownership and the (comparatively) cheap ethos ruining the franchise
In turn, such root-and-branch reform is unlikely to happen while Hal Steinbrenner is the Yankees’ managing general partner, because he is content with good, rather than great, from his functional employees. The Yankees’ present tone of laissez-faire rationalisation is set by Hal, whose primary concern is revenue, not rings. That modus operandi continues to stifle the Yankees, and it will not change until new ownership arrives in the Bronx.
“At the end of the year, I’m going to look at performances and make a decision whether to continue with that person or not,” Hal said in a recent media session when asked to appraise the work of his minions. “But doing a kneejerk reaction to appease this person or that person in the middle of the year when I really don’t think there’s a problem – that’s certainly something I’m not going to do.”
At this point, it is rather boring to contrast Hal and George Steinbrenner – the data-driven recluse and the firebrand ayatollah. As the whole world knows, George was The Boss, a fearsome imperialist addicted to winning. His son, meanwhile, shows little interest in baseball, preferring to fly airplanes and run hotels than build rosters and motivate players. That innate austerity – so anathema to the Yankees’ heritage – has undermined the franchise for more than a decade, while a lust for profit has left it bereft of bygone purpose.
Hal took day-to-day control of the Yankees in 2007. A year earlier, under George’s admittedly strained aegis, the team dedicated 68% of its $302 million revenue to player payroll – a strong commitment to winning. Within six years, Hal reduced that ratio to 47%, before continuing to shave off the top. By 2018, team revenues had risen to $668 million, but the reallocation of those funds to payroll had fallen to just 27%. It is difficult to measure the last couple of years due to Covid-19 and its widespread impact, but we are still seeing the consequences of that diminished financial assertiveness.
In essence, under Hal’s leadership, the actual baseball team has become an ever-dwindling line item on the ledger of Yankees Global Enterprises Inc. Once relying on the nucleus of nine guys spread around a diamond for fame and glory, the conglomerate now consists of soccer clubs and Hard Rock Cafés, hospitality arms and sushi startups. George used to fire people following spring training losses, so strong was his desire to win, but now victories are secondary to the Yankees’ corporate growth. The bottom line is all that matters.
Take the last offseason, for instance. Compounding the Tanaka debacle, the Yankees had opportunities to sign Michael Brantley and Kyle Schwarber, two lefty-hitting veterans with winning experience. According to Michael Kay, the team’s play-by-play voice, both players wanted to be Yankees – even reaching out to the organisation with unprecedented zeal. The advances of Brantley and Schwarber were rejected, however, with the Yankees citing payroll constraints and roster inflexibility as reasons for their hesitancy. Brantley is currently competing for the American League batting title with a .326 average in Houston, while Schwarber has already slammed 25 homers for Washington. Both players were selected to the All-Star Game, rubbing salt into the wounds.
Such moves – or the lack thereof – have become a recurring nightmare for Yankees fans, who have grown accustomed to the meandering frustration. Whereas George invariable sanctioned exorbitant spending in pursuit of championships, Hal urges caution, forcing his baseball operations personnel to view MLB’s luxury tax threshold – $210 million – as a de facto salary cap. Perhaps that hesitancy is understandable, given the Yankees paid $320 million in luxury tax contributions between 2003 and 2017, funding the development of more parsimonious teams. However, when it costs $875 to sit behind home plate at Yankee Stadium, seeing the team slash revenue-to-payroll allocation by a third kinda makes you sick.
All over the world, Yankees fans consistently support their team – buying more jerseys, caps, tickets and subscriptions than any other cohort. Yet, evidently, the owners – Hal, flanked by Jessica Steinbrenner and Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal – feel no obligation to put that money back onto the field. Hal has paid Stanton, Gerrit Cole and a slew of past-prime veterans, but the life-and-death, championship-or-bust credo instilled by his father is sadly a relic of the past.
Hal is quick to highlight that many of his dad's moves were unsuccessful and, in fairness, he has a point. George often destabilised the Yankees, and his bluster had a placebo effect on fans, whose joy was often derived from transactions made by beleaguered executives such as Gabe Paul, Bob Lemon, Cedric Tallis, Bob Watson and Gene Michael. Furthermore, Hal is correct that a championship baseball team can be built for less than $210 million. Just not this team, led by these vapid bureaucrats. And the sooner he realises that, the easier we will all sleep.
Unfortunately, despite clearly lacking the requisite passion to deliver a consistent winner, there is little indication that Hal, et al., will consider selling the team anytime soon. Forbes recently valued the Yankees at $5.25 billion, a 5% increase on last year, meaning there are only about 500 people in the world who could afford to buy the franchise outright, without joining a consortium. “Owning the Yankees is like owning the Mona Lisa,” George once said, and until his hardball heirloom gets a new custodian, the halcyon days are unlikely to return.
Why the Yankees need a complete organisational overhaul to rekindle their mystique and aura
You can probably count on two hands the amount of ballgames Hal attends in any given season. In the absence of natural enthusiasm for baseball, the faceless owner entrusts a moribund cast of cookie cutter technocrats with the running of his ballclub. That they are generally arranged in an antediluvian structure barely seems to matter, so long as the money keeps rolling in, and so long as the illusion of contention is maintained.
Randy Levine, the Yankees’ president, has held the position since 2000. An eccentric attorney, Levine has always lacked baseball acumen, and his penchant for foot-in-mouth comments is wearisome. Quite what Levine does, from a baseball operations perspective, is difficult to quantify, especially when compared with evolving presidential roles in other organisations. Take Andrew Friedman with the Dodgers, for example, or Dave Dombrowski with the Phillies. Consider John Mozeliak with the Cardinals, or Jon Daniels with the Rangers. These people are smart, sophisticated and efficient. But, more than anything, they hold autonomy over baseball decisions, whereas Randy Levine is just an expensive ambassador – and not a very good one – for the Yankees. The wasted potential is enormous.
In a similar vein, Hal relies on Lonn Trost, another lawyer with limited baseball knowledge, as the Yankees’ chief operating officer. Trost’s remit is to basically milk every last cent out of the Yankees’ brand. Indeed, Trost is the chief architect of Hal’s gentrification efforts, tweaking the team’s blueprint so it appeals to city slickers more than blue collar diehards.
Trost was the leading visionary behind the new Yankee Stadium, opened in 2009 at a cost of $2.3 billion. Many loyal rooters consider that the moment when this franchise crossed the Rubicon into bland corporate daydreaming. Sure, the old yard was a little creaky, but it was Yankee Stadium, the most sacred baseball site of all. Rather than renovating the storied amphitheatre – a la Fenway Park, Wrigley Field or Dodger Stadium – they tore it down and built a mall across the street. The new ballpark, Trost’s opus, has since loomed as a sad symbol of the Yankees’ deluded priorities. It represents the team’s complete surrender to ethereal commercial interests, at the expense of spirited ingenuity.
The new Stadium was designed to eke an endless stream of cash from a certain type of fan – middle class suburbanites keen to catch a few innings after finishing work on Wall Street. Trost basically said as much in 2016, when addressing a debacle over ticket sales on the secondary market. “It’s not that we don’t want fans to sell their tickets,” Trost explained. “But the fan is sitting there having paid a substantial amount of money for a ticket, and another fan picks it up for a buck-and-a-half and sits there, which is frustrating to the purchaser of the full amount. And, quite frankly, the fan may be someone who has never sat in a premium location, so that is a frustration to our existing fanbase.”
Ah, your existing fanbase. You mean the millions upon millions of ordinary, working class acolytes who have stuck by this franchise through thick and thin, feast and famine, scandal and bewilderment, over many decades? Yeah, those guys who pay your exorbitant salary? The normal, salt-of-the-earth people who have kept the Yankees near the top of baseball’s attendance chart for generations? To hell with that, Lonn. And to hell with your premium locations. Get these people out of the organisation before they can do any further damage. I’m done with their profiteering.
‘Fire Cashman!’ How has the Yankees’ GM lasted so long, and will the team ever move on?
With such self-centred, money-mad, out-of-touch functionaries running the show, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Yankees have not changed general manager in 24 years. Brian Cashman, the occupier of that office since 1998, is part of the old boys’ network, and no amount of public disgruntlement seems to alter his position of infallibility.
For context, America has had five different presidents since the Yankees last changed their head of baseball operations. There have also been three different popes in that time, while every other major league team – except Oakland – has changed general manager. Oh, and the Red Sox have won four World Series titles in that stretch, having once being incapable of winning any. In one sense, Cashman keeping his job amid such repeated failure defies comprehension. Yet, in another sense, the intransigence makes total sense when considering how disinterested the higher-ups really are.
In his Yankees tenure, Cashman has spent $4.1 billion on player salaries. No other team is within $700 million of that expenditure. Sure, the Yankees won a bunch of championships early in Cashman’s reign, but they have been trophyless for an eternity at this point. Moreover, since 1998, each Yankee win has cost $1.9 million in salary spend, by far the worst ratio in baseball. The Rays, by contrast, have paid just over $684,000 per win in the same span – a three-fold efficiency.
As a barometer of executive efficiency, cost-per-win can be slightly misleading, of course. Such a metric fails to account for market sizes, team histories, fanbase demands and franchise cultures. However, even after adjusting the formula to consider the immediate metropolitan population of each big league team – creating a proprietary cost-per-win-per-citizen stat – Cashman’s Yankees still rank third-worst in baseball. In other words, during his premiership, this franchise has routinely failed to deliver on enormous expectations – and yet, he has still been deemed indispensable for a quarter-century.
More than inefficiency of spend, though, Cashman just seems incapable of honing a balanced roster. Despite the infamously enticing dimensions of Yankee Stadium, with its short right field porch, the team currently has three lefty hitters: Gardner, Odor and Tyler Wade – who have a combined .212 batting average this season. How is that even possible? The Yankees have always been powered by lethal lefty bats – Teixeira, Cano, Giambi, O’Neill, Martinez, Mattingly, Jackson, Maris, Gehrig, Ruth – and now we get this? It is asinine.
If there was a conscious effort to go in another direction – towards a smallball approach, say – this glaring omission may make sense, but the Yankees are designed to hit home runs. To wit, no Yankee has topped 40 stolen bases in a decade, and the days of Derek Jeter slapping balls the other way are consigned to documentaries. The Yankees are even misguided in their patented approach, therefore, with a stream of righty hitters aiming for the deepest part of the ballpark.
Accordingly, there is even a disconnect between the Yankees’ boardroom idealism and their everyday machinations. Why, for example, did this franchise sign the aforementioned Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million deal in 2013? Ellsbury was a stolen base savant, but his attempts decreased 23% per season in pinstripes versus earlier in his career with Boston. Thus, Ellsbury is often lambasted by Yankee fans as the personification of this snowflake generation, but he really just embodied a distorted ideology. Why did the Yankees sign him when their organisational ethos was – and is – so diametrically opposed to everything he did well on a baseball field? The entire scenario is unfathomable.
Digging deeper, Cashman has repeated such kneejerk mistakes on innumerable occasions, hampering his own attempts to fashion a winning ballclub under Hal's luxury tax mandate. Stanton is locked in until 2029, for instance, despite a deteriorating bat and an inability to play the field. Aaron Hicks is signed through 2027, despite never hitting above .266 in pinstripes. And Luis Severino has pitched in three games since signing a four-year, $40 million deal in 2019, encapsulating this infuriating epoch.
Even with a fat wallet, then, Cashman regularly fails to bet on the right number. Just look at some of the questionable free agency calls he has made over the last two decades-plus. The Yankees passed on Randy Johnson before the 1999 season, then watched as he authored the most dominant four-year pitching stretch of all-time. The Yankees chose an ageing Gary Sheffield over an in-prime Vladimir Guerrero in 2004, then gawped as Vlad instantly became the MVP. Throw in a lack of engagement with Cano in 2014, Max Scherzer in 2015 and Bryce Harper in 2019, and you can only wonder what the Yankees are even trying to accomplish these days. Evidently, there is no cohesive vision, and Cashman is left to adlib his way to superfluity.
This growing inertia is best exemplified by the Yankees’ historic issues identifying pitching reclamation projects. Seemingly every year, in the absence of an effective homegrown talent pipeline, Cashman invests in depleted pitching assets, convinced he has the magic elixir for faded talent. From Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon to JA Happ, James Paxton, Sonny Gray and Lance Lynn; from Michael Pineda, Jaime García and Freddy García to Chris Capuano, Esmil Rogers and Nathan Eovaldi; from AJ Burnett, Javier Vázquez, Kerry Wood and Sidney Ponson to Alfredo Aceves, Carl Pavano, Jon Lieber and Kevin Brown; from José Contreras and Esteban Loaiza to Tanyon Sturtze and Jeff Weaver – this place is a damn pitching graveyard, and the storyline is now beyond tedious.
Indeed, there is a subterranean theory among high-ranking executives that, after 10 years in one role, the ambitious professional should seek new opportunities and challenges elsewhere. The maxim is typically attributed to Bill Walsh, the legendary gridiron brain, but it has been newly popularised by Theo Epstein, the most fêted baseball thinker of our age. Perhaps there is some merit to the 10-year rule, after all, and the Yankees should seriously study it.
I was once a Cashman apologist, and he is certainly misunderstood as an executive. He worked wonders during the Yankees’ hybrid rebuild a half-decade ago, and I respect the guy’s august reputation within baseball. After years of tongue-tied subservience to George and his cronies, to Derek and his entourage, and to A-Rod and his attorneys, Brian finally wrestled control of this organisation and set it on course for modernisation. Such a project required monumental guts and forbearance, and we should applaud those efforts with gusto.
Nevertheless, aside from all the semantics and niceties, the symbolism and propaganda, what is Cashman’s job? To win the World Series for the New York Yankees. He has not done that since 2009. He has done that once in 20 years. It is remarkable, therefore, that he still has a job, when you drill down to the bedrock. Change is sorely needed, and it must come soon.
Why can’t the Yankees stay healthy? A look at the team’s problems with strength, conditioning, injuries, sports science, kinesiology and biomechanics
Even when the Yankees do sign marquee free agents or develop elite talent, that is only half the battle. The other half – keeping those assets on the field enough to make a tangible impact – has become yet another shitshow for this misaligned organisation. In short, the Yankees cannot stay healthy, and that trend is rooted in deep cultural and managerial inequities.
Two years ago, for example, the Yankees sustained more injuries in a season than any team in baseball history. In fact, that year, the Bombers paid more to injured players than the Rays and Pirates paid to their entire rosters. Such an embarrassing surfeit of injuries prompted an apparent overhaul of the team’s medical department, with Eric Cressey, an expert in kinesiology, becoming the director of player health and performance. He was joined by Donovan Santas, strength coach extraordinaire; Gillian Weir, a senior biomechanist; Mike Schuk, a specialist in tactical human optimisation; and Chad Bohling, a sports psychologist.
Still, the problems persist. Still, this franchise is riddled with unfit, unhealthy and unsustainable bodies. And still, no real action – by way of trades or meaningful signings – has occurred. As fans, we are just expected to accept that our favourite players will spend significant portions of each season on the injured list. And even when they are healthy, Boone will be directed to sit certain guys anyway, saving them for potential playoff games that are increasingly unlikely to happen.
Since 2019, for instance, Stanton has played in just 110 of the Yankees’ 311 regular season games. That is 35%. Since arriving in New York, Stanton has suffered injuries to his biceps, shoulders, knees, hamstrings and calves. Despite a $325 million contract, the guy has not played a game in the field for two whole years. Giancarlo is a hulking specimen of a man – 6 feet 6 inches and 250 lbs – but his physique is apparently too ripped, too muscular and too cartoonish to withstand the routine wear and tear of a baseball season. Therefore, he sits almost seven out of ten times, the fifth-highest-paid ballplayer of all-time collecting an exorbitant wage to ride the bench and occasionally strike out four times a night.
There is a similar – albeit slightly less egregious – story with Judge, the other half of the colossal axis of power that was supposed to deliver multiple championships to the Yankees. Since 2018, Judge has played in just 68% of the Yankees’ regular season games. At 6 feet 7 inches and 280 lbs, Judge is even more physically impressive than Stanton, and the duo shares similar demons. Before checking, I actually thought the number of Judge appearances would be much lower, which illustrates the waning faith we, as fans, have in our headline stars. You are always waiting for something to pop with these guys, and it invariably does.
Still unconvinced of the Yankees’ systematic physical ineptitude? Well, here are some more stats to make your eyes water. Luis Severino has pitched 12 big league innings since 2018. Hicks – 6 feet 2 inches, 205 lbs – has missed 39% of all Yankees games since 2016. Luke Voit – 6 feet 3 inches, 255 lbs – has missed 35% of their games since 2019. As such, the probability of Stanton, Judge, Hicks and Voit being in the same lineup for any one Yankees game is generally around 57%, using data from the last four seasons. If this is not a fatal design flaw – that, for almost than half of their games, the Yankees rely on suboptimal lineups – then I do not know what is.
Again, I understand that baseball has changed from the glory days. Heck, society has changed. Players need rest at various points of the season to recharge – mentally and physically – while teams like the Dodgers have demonstrated the virtue of proactive workload management among a deep roster. However, there is a total lack of context to the Yankees’ resting of players. And besides, the statistics suggest those efforts to minimise injuries are ineffective anyway, so what are we saving these guys for?
For instance, in a recent loss to the Angels – yes, the one where Chapman imploded in the ninth inning, turning an 8-4 lead into an 11-8 defeat – Judge was held out of the lineup yet again for nonsensical reasons. Just days before, Boone said the Yankees’ season was on the line. Then, he proceeded to bench Judge, his most consistently dangerous hitter, in a must-win game. It is almost as if Boone has a recurring Outlook reminder, set by Cashman, to rest certain guys on a predetermined rota, regardless of their current performance levels. This madness cannot go on.
“I think he gets beat up a little bit in the lower half,” Boone told the New York Post while explaining Judge’s absence. “Especially the stretch of games we are in right now. It’s been hot. We’ve played some three-and-a-half-plus hour games. Some day games after night games. Obviously, he’s played centre field. He’s been on the bases a lot. I just think, overall, he’s a little beat up. Nothing I’m concerned with as far as anything that’s going to keep him out of the lineup, but more trying to get out ahead of preventing something from happening.”
So, let me get this straight. A 29-year-old athlete, paid more than $10 million per year to play a game we all love, is incapable of working in hot conditions for more than three hours? That is kinda the essence of baseball, Aaron. Heat happens. Four-hour games happen. Day games after night games happen – a lot. If this is now the criteria to rest a crucial player in a pivotal game, against an elite pitcher like Shohei Ohtani, then we may as well pack up and go home, because the game has been hijacked beyond repair.
I love Aaron Judge. Watching him live, in the flesh, during the MLB London Series, was one of the most awesome experiences of my life. Yet he has to buck up here. He has to get on the field. Seeing that lineup card posted on the clubhouse wall, he has to be banging on Boone’s door, breaking shit, demanding to play. If he was really a true leader, the genuine heir to Jeter, there is no way he would settle for this mollycoddling. And yet, he seemingly does.
Judge has a track record of such transgressions, as well. When he missed a few games in April due to ‘lower body soreness,’ I nearly lost my mind. Lower body soreness? Really? Tell that to the mechanic who breaks his back all day while looking forward to watching the Yankees for a sliver of joy. Tell that to the waiters and baristas, the construction workers and the soldiers who buy your jerseys and pay your wages. Heck, tell that to Joe DiMaggio, who played with bone spurs in his right heel, or to Mickey Mantle, whose entire left leg was held together with sticky tape. Get outta here with your lower body soreness. Nobody wants to hear that bullshit.
Just by way of comparison, in the 17 seasons between 1996 and 2012, Jeter played in 2,570 of the Yankees’ 2,754 regular season games, plus a boatload of postseason contests. Therefore, The Captain had a 93% games played rate across almost two decades, but Judge and Stanton cannot manage it for two weeks. That they wear the same uniform as Jim Abbott and Lou Gehrig – warriors who played with missing limbs (literally in Abbott’s case!) – is a borderline disgrace to their legacies.
Are the Yankees just too soft? Lamenting the loss of pinstripe pride
Ultimately, we may just have to accept that these Yankees are too soft to win a title. Judge called a players-only meeting following one of Chapman’s recent debacles, determined to address the malfunctioning fundamentals. The immediate response from this listless team? Another lopsided loss, this time to the crosstown Mets. There is just no fire in this group. There is no believable leader. And pretty soon, there will be no hope.
While this roster may seem idealistic when viewed on a typed spreadsheet, it is deeply flawed on the field. The Yankees have too many similar players – physically and psychologically – and they do not complement each other at all. They are too right-handed, too power-dependent, too injury prone and too emotionally passive. These guys have a homogenous view of baseball, and it is not conducive with sustainable success.
The Yankees need some salty veteran grinders who know how to play baseball. Real baseball, that is, not swinging for the fences on every damn pitch. They need proven winners who can teach the basics of winning and comportment to these one-dimensional neophytes. Statistics do not even matter at this point, and nor does age. We are crying out for some natural ballplayers, as opposed to superhuman athletes who just happen to wield a bat.
Every championship ballclub has these characters – these gutsy, difference-making hustlers. Justin Turner on the Dodgers, for instance. Basically the entire 2019 Nationals. Steve Pearce with the 2018 Red Sox; David Ross and Ben Zobrist with the curse-busting Cubs; the dirt dog Royals of 2015; and the Posey-Bumgarner battery of San Francisco, to name but a few. These are the foundations upon which more decorative elements can be built. These are the organisational cornerstones.
Even the Yankees’ own halcyon days are littered with these unheralded yet crucial cogs. Think Paul O’Neill assaulting watercoolers. Think Tino Martinez casting an icy glance across the clubhouse. Think Brosius, Joe Girardi, Jorge Posada and Jeff Nelson – grimy warriors who demanded excellence from themselves and from their peers.
Delving even further back, leafing through the almanac, look at gladiators like Thurman Munson, Graig Nettles, Lou Piniella, Elston Howard, Bobby Richardson, Billy Martin and Phil Rizzuto. These were the supportive spokes whose consistent play kept the Yankees in games and gave the superstars a chance to win them. This modern iteration has no such spokes. This is where the Yankees are, and this is sadly what they have become. At this point, we just have to eat it.
Recently, as I grumbled at the television, showcasing another Yankees meltdown, Patrycja, my fiancée, remarked that this team is just not fun to watch. They never smile, she said. They are stiff, arrogant and weighed down by the oppressive miasma of history. These throwaway comments struck a chord with me, and I realised Patrycja was correct. This team is just not likeable, and that makes the dog days of summer a draining ordeal.
I like LeMahieu, even though he has regressed this season. Urshela is a proper ballplayer, even if he lacks that consistent sparkle of a genuine star. I still believe in Torres, even though his transition to shortstop has been rather rocky. Likewise, Jordan Montgomery is a guy you can easily root for, as are Kyle Higashioka, Jonathan Loáisiga and Nestor Cortes. And Judge can do awesome things on the diamond, despite his perplexing frailty. Nevertheless, that is about it, in terms of likeable Yankees. The rest are pretty infuriating.
The repeated humouring of Chapman against the backdrop of domestic violence allegations and season-ending implosions still kills me, as does the tolerance of Domingo Germán for similar reasons. Moreover, Cole’s recent implication in the ball-doctoring epidemic – in which texts were leaked purportedly showing the Yankees’ ace orchestrating deals for foreign substances – leaves you wondering whether he conned the team out of $324 million based on inauthentic performances. I just find it hard to root for these guys, quite frankly, but we are stuck with them for an eternity.
Not only are these the New York Yankees, once the very definition of glory, they are the New York Yankees, representative of a seething metropolis whose denizens pull no punches. New York is often condemned as a brash, obnoxious, high-octane melting pot of brusque, cut-throat sharks, so when did its premier baseball team become so anathema to that vibe? Almost to a man, the Yankees need to quit whining, stop pussyfooting around, get on the damn field and play hard. As fans, that is all we ask. Winning barely enters the equation.
Where do the Yankees go from here? Can they turn it around in the second half? Will they make some moves at the trade deadline? And when will genuine change sweep through the Bronx?
I understand that, to fans of other teams, listening to Yankee diehards whine is a bittersweet experience. In one sense, it must be great for Yankee haters to finally see this franchise mired in such a quagmire after decades of relentless success. In another sense, though, the histrionics from a fortunate fanbase may seem bewildering. However, the current shenanigans out of Yankee Stadium – the way ownership, front office executives and inadequate ballplayers are sucking the life from a sacred franchise – is an affront to all baseball fans, and we should be concerned with what this means for our sport as a whole.
Sure, the Yankees may make a few lateral trades and reshuffle the pack for a second-half resurgence, but that would just place wallpaper over gaping cracks in the foundations. That would be a band aid on a brain haemorrhage. Yes, Cashman can improve this team by adding athleticism, cultural leaders and left-handed situational hitting before the July 30 trade deadline, but are those moves really going to nudge the needle? The Yankees are eight games back in the AL East and four-and-a-half games short of a wildcard berth. Pretty soon, they may have to admit defeat and blow the whole thing up.
In 2016, for instance, the Yanks had a 50-48 record when they traded Chapman to the Cubs in late July, waving a white flag and pushing the button on a swift reboot. They were also in fourth place back then, but they were ‘only’ seven-and-a-half games out of a playoff spot. According, things may soon be just as bad in 2021 as they were in 2016, when Hal sanctioned a fire sale. As such, following a similar path through the next few weeks may be this team’s most prudent route to long-term contention, because lord knows the Yankees are not winning the World Series as presently constructed.
⚾ ⚾ ⚾
- Another poor offseason breeds familiar uncertainty for the Yankees
- Déjà vu all over again as Yankees lose 2020 ALDS to Tampa Bay Rays
- How Brian Cashman turned mud into gold during the Yankees' rebuild
- Hal Steinbrenner and the age of Yankee austerity