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NY Post
New York Post
5 Aug 2023

NextImg:Yankees’ failure to learn needed lessons behind ongoing decline

Maybe the Yankees’ offensive struggles in 2023 are this simply explained: two freak injuries. 

Anthony Rizzo’s head smashed into Fernando Tatis Jr.’s right hip as Kyle Higashioka back-picked the Padres star retreating to first. At the time of that May 28 collision, Rizzo had 11 homers, a .304 average with an .881 OPS and the second-best Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs) among AL first basemen. The Yankees were 33-23 and the AL’s third wild card. 

Aaron Judge’s right foot smashed into an exposed cement base at the bottom of the Dodger Stadium right-field wall. At that time of that June 3 injury, Judge led the AL in homers, was third in WAR and was in a groove familiar to his 2022 AL MVP season. The Yankees were 35-25 and still the third wild card. 

Rizzo was placed on the injured list Thursday with post-concussion syndrome that the Yankees believe stemmed from that collision more than two months ago. From May 29 until hitting the IL, Rizzo had one homer and the worst batting average (.172), OPS (.492) and WAR (minus-1.7) in the majors (minimum 165 plate appearances). Most of that coincided with the 42 games Judge spent on the IL, during which the Yankees’ offense plummeted — and they fell out of a playoff spot. 

Of course, the Yankees’ offense would have been better without those atypical occurrences. But it would be simplistic to explain it all away as a result of those injuries. The amount of inadequacy up and down the lineup, which was exposed by the Judge’s absence and Rizzo’s drop, must be addressed both in personnel and philosophy, or it would be a lesson not learned. 

Brian Cashman said last year that he definitely believes the Yankees would have beaten the Astros in the 2017 ALCS if the latter had not cheated.
Getty Images

Which leads us to the Yankees’ opponent this weekend. The Astros have beaten the Yankees in the ALCS three times since 2017, and it feels that each time the Yankees failed to heed valuable lessons. 

This is always a complicated discussion, because the Astros were found to be illegally stealing signs during their 2017 title season. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said last year he believes his team definitely would have beaten the Astros in 2017 if not for the illegalities. 

But the Astros have kept on winning — six straight ALCS appearances and another World Series championship last year. Their success is clearly not just about cheating. This season, they have had worse pitching injuries than the Yankees have had, plus long IL stints for Yordan Alvarez and Jose Altuve that are equivalent to the Yankees missing Judge, or more. Yet Houston had outperformed the Yankees. 

Again, the 2017 ALCS is complicated by cheating revelations. But the Yankees scored just three runs in the four losses in Houston. Thus began a six-year playoff run in which the Yankees were basically eliminated due to: 1) an ineffective offense lacking lefty-righty balance, speed and athleticism, and hitting for average; 2) their conqueror playing baseball better than them. 

During that 2017 ALCS, for example, the holes in Gary Sanchez’s catching defense became more overt and easier to capitalize upon. Greg Bird was twice thrown out at the plate at vital moments, not just because he was slow, but also because he got poor secondary leads and in one instance cut third base poorly. 

But that was ignored, as was the fact that the Astros, who struck out 22.9 percent of the time in 2015, a season in which they eliminated the Yankees in a wild-card game, removed whiff-meisters like Chris Carter and Jason Castro from their team before the end of 2016. They then struck out 17.3 percent of the time in 2017. Again, they cheated in 2017 — except Houston has remained among the toughest teams to strike out since then, as well. All-or-nothing hitters with large holes are exploited more in the playoffs, when the bad pitching is gone and scouting reports are more precise. 

The Yankees, after that 2017 season, were shocked when they were shunned by Shohei Ohtani. They pivoted to Giancarlo Stanton. It is a seminal moment that further locked them, financially and roster-wise, into being right-handed and unathletic. Cashman espoused “big, hairy monsters.” He wanted home run hitters. 

Giancarlo Stanton

The Yankees pivoted to Giancarlo Stanton in 2017 after failing to sign Shohei Ohtani.
Getty Images

That fit the analytic model. Hit enough homers and there are 95-ish wins in there, and just disregard how bad you may look at other times. It also fit the times. MLB was basically playing with a super ball, especially in 2018 and 2019, when the Yankees set the franchise home run record with 267 in 2018 before they smashed it in 2019 with 306. 

The Yankees outhomered the Astros 10-8 in the 2019 ALCS, but lost four games to two. Houston was again better at baseball. The Yankees, though, kept doubling down on righty-hitting and non-athletic players, which made it feel as if they were not even listening to themselves. 

When talking about how he deploys his relievers, manager Aaron Boone has been fastidious at lining up lanes in which their stuff matched up with a patch of similar hitters. Makes sense. 

    But the Yankees essentially built a lineup that was all one lane and, thus, susceptible to right-handed power pitching, particularly come the playoffs (it is not all a crapshoot). And the further downside was Sanchez was not a good defender. Nor was Luke Voit at first base. Nor was Gleyber Torres when he was out of position at short. 

    Yet, the casino philosophy — stick to the system and you will win — insisted on ignoring the defensive inequities and the athletic deficiencies, and going for the homers. But what happens if the league stops using a super ball? All those righty hitters who can get to the short right field porch don’t do it quite as often. And therefore they become less fearsome to pitch to, which leads to fewer hitter counts and walks. 

    Last season, Houston swept the Yankees in the ALCS. The Yankees hit .162 and scored nine runs in four games. So they clearly learned their lesson — and used their big money to sign a starting pitcher, Carlos Rodon, for $162 million. 

    Jose Altuve

    Jose Altuve celebrates after the Astros beat the Yankees in the 2022 ALCS.
    USA TODAY Sports

    It felt as if Cashman’s baseball-operations people were not watching the evolution of the game — or, again, themselves. Pitching coach Matt Blake’s staff was getting better at countering slugging percentage by fixating on certain areas to attack. It is part of the give and take of all sports — something succeeds, everyone goes to work to thwart it. The need for better-rounded hitters with less exploitable areas was needed. 

    But the annual playoff appearances outweighed why the Yankees were getting eliminated in roster building and philosophy. That is until now, when just making the playoffs is in peril. 

    Cashman last month fired a coach during a season for the first time. Hitting coach Dillon Lawson had a theory in hitting — find a pitch to pull in the air — but didn’t seem capable of helping to adapt in real time to what was occurring to his offense. 

    Gary Sanchez

    Gary Sanchez’s deficiencies were often exposed in the playoffs.
    Getty Images

    The Yankees were going to the plate as if an at-bat were a theory rather than a competition. It is not a theory for Altuve or Alvarez or Alex Bregman. It is a competition and what is going on in the game — score, inning, pitcher — should shape the kind of at-bat needed. It happens regularly in October against the Yankees. 

    New hitting coach Sean Casey is trying to espouse that philosophy, and there are baby steps. Anthony Volpe’s pull rate has dropped from 44.3 to 37.5 percent under Casey, and an all-field approach has made his plate appearances more competitive. When Torres works the count and uses the whole field, the quality of his at-bats rise, too. 

    Sure, it all would have been better had Rizzo and Judge not incurred freak injuries. But those Astros series were screaming for the Yankees’ need to adapt well before those injuries.