The New York Yankees are in third place in the AL East, clinging to a near .500 record. This has happened before, of course, but in the franchise’s dark days pre–Babe Ruth, and in the late 1980s when George Steinbrenner was running the club with all the nuance of a feudal estate.
These Yankees were supposed to be different. Coming off a 103-win season and a trip to the ALCS, GM Brian Cashman supplemented one of the best offenses in baseball history by making Gerrit Cole the highest-paid pitcher of all time. The Yankees began the season as heavy favorites to win the AL pennant and cofavorites with the Dodgers to win the World Series, and through the first month of the 2020 season, they looked the part. The Yankees had the best record in baseball on August 17, along with the second-best run differential and a 2.5-game lead in the AL East—not impregnable, but comfortable enough considering how well the Rays were playing at the time.
Since that 16-6 start, though, New York has been baseball’s third-worst team, going 5-15 in its past 20 games and outpacing only two clubs—the Diamondbacks and Rangers, whose GMs took their losing streaks as an omen and instigated fire sales at the trade deadline. The Yankees’ opponents, on aggregate, have a better record in the past 20 games than any team except the white-hot Padres.
A berth in the eight-team AL playoffs, which looked like a fait accompli three weeks ago, now hangs very much in the balance, with the Orioles and Tigers—two teams that took more losses than a failing software company last year—within two games of the Bronx Bombers.
The Yankees are teetering on the edge, and they know it. Before Tuesday’s game against the Blue Jays, Cashman told reporters that the “fans deserve better baseball than this.” Cashman’s men lost 2-1 that night, despite putting eight runners on base in four innings against an extremely wild Taijuan Walker. The loss dropped the Yankees 6.5 games out of first place, and three games behind Toronto/Buffalo for second place with just 18 to play.
“Every time we think we have a chance, somehow we end up doing something wrong,” Luke Voit said after the game.
Voit has actually been quite good during this run, hitting .263/.344/.563 since August 18, but one man can’t carry a team, and just about everything else has gone wrong. That makes sense—one of the top teams in baseball has turned into one of the worst, so the best place to look for answers is everywhere.
Last year’s Yankees won 103 games despite facing record amounts of injuries, and that injury bug has flared up again this season. Giancarlo Stanton went on the IL with a hamstring injury on August 9, before the skid started, and has stayed there ever since. Gleyber Torres missed two weeks with a hamstring strain of his own. Aaron Judge joined him with a strained calf (which on someone as big as Judge is more like a strained steer on an average-sized person) on August 28. Reliever Tommy Kahnle is getting Tommy John surgery, and left-hander James Paxton has been on the IL since August 21 with a strained flexor tendon.
Last year, the Yankees were able to work through their community theater production of the hospital scene from Airplane! because of an unexpectedly deep bench: Players like DJ LeMahieu and Gio Urshela took huge steps forward offensively in 2019, but in 2020 they also have been hurt at the worst possible times. LeMahieu was hitting over .400 when he sprained his thumb on August 15 and missed two weeks, and Urshela is currently recovering from a minor elbow injury that landed him on the IL.
Dig far enough down into any group of men in the New York area and eventually it turns into Just a Few Dudes Named Mike, and the Yankees are no exception. But last year, Mikes Ford and Tauchman combined to hit .270/.357/.524; in 2020, they’re hitting .191/.290/.289.
Of course, there’s more blame to go around than any number of Mikes can absorb. Catcher Gary Sánchez, once one of the very best offensive catchers in baseball, has a batting line (.121/.230/.327) that makes one wonder whether it’s a bizarre tribute to the end of pitchers hitting. Brett Gardner, who posted a cumulative OPS+ of 103 in 5,570 plate appearances from 2010 to 2019, is hitting .165/.293/.299, his worst offensive output since his rookie year. Miguel Andújar hit .297/.328/.527 as a rookie in 2018 and then missed most of 2019; this season, he’s hitting .218/.259/.327.
The team that had a collective wRC+ of 127 on August 17, by far the best figure in baseball, has completely lost its juice. Since that date, the Yankees have a team wRC+ of just 79, 25th in MLB. Not even Voit’s career year, the emergence of Clint Frazier, and the returns of LeMahieu and Torres have righted the offense.
It’s not like the pitchers have done much better. Since August 18, the Yankees are 23rd in ERA-. Cole entered this streak having gone 33 consecutive regular-season starts without a loss; he’s now taken a loss in each of his past three starts. Jordan Montgomery lasted a combined nine innings in his past three starts, in which he’s allowed nine runs and 16 hits. Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, and top pitching prospect Deivi García have taken up the other two rotation spots for the most part in the past three weeks, and they’ve pitched well during the skid. But thanks to a lack of support from the offense and bullpen, they’re a combined 2-4.
And yeah, the bullpen, to paraphrase a former Yankees manager, is not what you want. Put succinctly, if a bit unscientifically: In the past 20 games, the Yankees bullpen has converted three save chances and blown seven. Since August 18, the Yankees bullpen is 25th in ERA- and dead last in WPA. They’re worse than the Red Sox, who might have the worst pitching staff in baseball history. Way worse than the Phillies, Astros, and Mets, all of whom are looking around thinking, “This team could go pretty far if we never have to use our relievers.”
Given that the culprits of these bullpen collapses are outstanding relievers with long track records—Aroldis Chapman, Adam Ottavino, Chad Green, and so on—it’s not unreasonable to conclude that this is not a systemic case of everyone in pinstripes forgetting how to pitch, but rather a case of remarkably bad sequencing.
The Yankees had better hope that’s all this is, just the kind of random oil slick even great teams slip on from time to time, coinciding with an equally impressive hot streak from the Blue Jays that makes this whole thing look worse than it is. Because with 17 games left in the season, finding a scientifically rigorous explanation for this slide is less important than stopping it before New York falls behind the Orioles as well.
And short of finding a hitherto undiscovered healing elixir and feeding it to Judge, Stanton, and Paxton, the Yankees are out of options. The trade deadline has come and gone, and most of the team’s top MLB-ready prospects—García, Clarke Schmidt, Estevan Florial, Albert Abreu, and Miguel Yajure—have already been called up (if only for spot action, in some cases) and done little if anything to stop the skid.
The Yankees’ next seven games, and 11 of their next 14, are against either the Blue Jays or Orioles, both teams that are less impressive on paper—even after the Yankees’ injury crisis—but are playing better right now. The Yankees probably can’t play any worse than they are right now, but if they test that assumption, the standings will get ugly, very quickly.
All advanced stats current through Tuesday’s games.