We’re three weeks into the 2021 MLB season, and just about everyone is unhappy. The Dodgers entered Wednesday’s action with a 14-4 record and a plus-38 run differential. And the Red Sox, who seemed destined for the treadmill of mediocrity before they debuted their UCLA cosplay uniforms, have won 12 of 19.
Most of the other teams, however, have pretty much floated within a few games of .500. Several preseason underdogs find themselves in playoff positions at this early date, but none by a large enough margin to convince fans the good times are going to last. Likewise, most of the expected playoff contenders are struggling out of the gate—not enough to raise alarms, but enough to frustrate. This is how April baseball goes most of the time; eventually the bounces will even out and we’ll be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the chaff from the Rockies and Pirates. But right now it’s still early, and one team is getting bounced around more than anyone anticipated.
At this early date, the Yankees find themselves toward the lower strata of the American League standings. The pinstriped gang got off to a 5-10 start, their worst since 1997, and even after a split against the Braves sit dead last in the American League East. First baseman Jay Bruce up and retired last weekend. (In reality, he didn’t retire because the Yankees stink, but it’s funny to imagine the 14-year veteran in the locker room after yet another loss to the Rays, going, “I’m too old for this shit,” and turning in his papers on the spot.)
Heading into Wednesday’s action, the Yankees—possessors of one of the deepest and most fearsome lineups in baseball—were 26th in the league in wRC+, 29th in batting average, 25th in runs per game, and dead last in slugging percentage. Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier, and Aaron Hicks were all batting below .200; reigning AL home run champion Luke Voit is rehabbing a partially torn meniscus and therefore too hurt to hit at all. And after Gerrit Cole, the Yankees’ starting pitching is patchy at best. Jameson Taillon’s had one good start, one bad start, and one iffy start. Corey Kluber’s fastball probably wouldn’t get pulled over for speeding on most Texas highways anymore.
And the fans are getting tetchy. Have been tetchy for some time, actually. They jeered Stanton on Opening Day when he went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts, and have since escalated to throwing baseballs onto the field of play. Expectations are always high for MLB’s marquee franchise, but they are especially so this year given that FanGraphs projected the Yankees to be the best team in the AL by six games, and Caesars Sportsbook gave them the shortest World Series odds of any AL team.
I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t funny. Any time a favorite gets kicked in the teeth, neutral fans—opposing fans, in this case, because anyone who doesn’t love the Yankees hates the Yankees on some level—tend to enjoy a chuckle at the humbled superpower’s expense. Jake Mintz of the Baseball BBQ podcast called this phenomenon “Yankenfreude,” an apt description, even if it might make German speakers cringe. So while two-thirds of the Yankee lineup comes to the plate wielding a pool noodle, and enraged fans scream “Boo!” like they’re trying to end To Kill a Mockingbird, by all means, let’s point and laugh.
Because this probably isn’t going to last long. From Opening Day until Memorial Day, the foolish baseball fan senses doom with every loss, while the wise fan heeds the words of the American philosopher Conor Oberst, who wrote: “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves.”
It’s absolutely possible for a team to damage its playoff chances in the first couple weeks of April, but for a team with the Yankees’ resources, it’s hard to feel like they’re actually in crisis mode this early in the season. Even a catastrophic run of injuries might not be enough to slow this team down for 162 games; you’ll remember that two years ago, the Yankees had such a run, and they went on to win 103 games and go to the ALCS.
So far, this year’s club has had a few inconvenient absences, but nothing catastrophic: Voit and Zach Britton ought to be back by early June, if not sooner, and the group’s fortunes were never going to rest on the health of Clarke Schmidt and Miguel Andújar. Instead, most of the Yankees’ struggles boil down to their inability to score runs. Even Tuesday’s win over the Braves was a little lucky, as New York put just one run on the board in the first seven innings, and Atlanta was a couple of ill-timed double plays from breaking the game wide open. I’m not sure any team in this day and age is built to win games 3-1, but the Yankees definitely aren’t.
Since the Yankees started their current run of four straight playoff appearances, they’ve been one of the best offensive teams in the league every single year, with basically the same core of hitters they have now.
Yankees Offensive Ranks
So yeah, if everyone but Aaron Judge and DJ LeMahieu forgot how to hit over the winter, and the Yankees continue to hit .208 all year, they’re probably screwed. But that’s not going to happen. Even if it does, there’s no way for anyone to have foreseen that outcome, so we might as well relax and wait for the New York Football Giants to open training camp. [Whispering from offstage] I’m sorry, I’m being told that we’re not looking forward to Giants training camp, because they were also in the bottom five in scoring last year.
So far this season, eight Yankees have put at least 25 balls in play, and according to Baseball Savant, six of them are outperforming their weighted on-base average (wOBA). The only exception, Gio Urshela, was beating his xwOBA by five points when he developed a limp at the plate on Wednesday night and had to leave the game. The Yankees’ teamwide BABIP was .280 last year; heading into Wednesday, it was .254. There’s going to be a lot of regression to the mean for this lineup.
And even at 6-11, a lot of things are still going well. (They’d have to be, in order for a team to have a record that good while scoring just three runs a game.) Cole has been absolutely awesome, which can’t be taken for granted. More importantly, another pillar of the prototypical Yankee juggernaut has continued its regularly scheduled service.
When we think of this incarnation of the Yankees, two things come to mind: First, a bunch of gigantic dudes who mash dingers. Second, absolutely top-notch relief pitching. That hasn’t changed in 2021. Entering Wednesday’s action, the Yankees bullpen was first in the league in strikeout rate, second in ERA-, and first in win probability added. Chad Green has allowed just one earned run in 10 1/3 innings. Aroldis Chapman has not only not been scored upon—he’s struck out 13 of the 19 batters he’s faced this year while throwing harder than he has since 2017.
When we see a team like the Yankees struggle out of the gate, Occam’s razor says it’s small-sample nonsense. And based on what we know about this franchise’s recent history, that seems to ring true. The way the Yankees are pitching, particularly in relief, they’d be a winning team with even a mediocre offense. And if the bar for Stanton, Torres, et al. is “mediocre,” I’ll take the over.
It’d be much funnier for non-Yankee fans if we were witnessing a Last Days of Empire situation, but we’re still a long way from that scenario. Turns out we’re just not that fortunate.