Is it fair to say that the New York Yankees were a big disappointment in the shortened season? They went 33-27 and beat the undermanned and overmatched Cleveland Indians in the AL Wild Card Round before bowing out in five games against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Frankly, I’d call that a disappointment for a team that posted a +204 run differential and won 103 games in 2019. Obviously a smaller sample size and the overall uniqueness of the 2020 season will lead a lot of people to question everything that happened and I can’t blame them for that. Perhaps the Yankees are one of the best examples from the 60-game sprint that we shouldn’t put too much stock in what we saw.
The Yankees led the American League in runs scored, so the offense was pretty much what we expected. There were individual gains on the pitching side, as Jordan Montgomery seemed to find his rhythm as a starter and Deivi Garcia got his first big taste of life in The Show with six starts. The overall pitching numbers were better in some respects, but worse in others. Though the Yankees didn’t replicate their 2019 performance in the standings, it became a big year from an individual standpoint.
I mentioned in last year’s intro that the Yankees, who do have the luxury of running one of MLB’s highest payrolls on an annual basis, have been able to fill holes internally and that has allowed them to pursue big contracts like Gerrit Cole, Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, Giancarlo Stanton, and now retain the services of DJ LeMahieu. Players like Gio Urshela, Mike Tauchman, Aaron Judge, Luke Voit, and Chad Green were already a presence prior to 2020, but now we can add Garcia and Clint Frazier after their 2021 contributions.
Hate on the Yankees if you want. Hate on how they raised the salary bar as high as they did in the mid-2000s. But, it is remarkably hard to hate on the development, the drafting, the acquisition of trade targets, and the organizational depth built on the watch of Brian Cashman. Cashman doesn’t get enough credit because the Steinbrenner Trust has a lot of commas in the account balance, but he and his staff have correctly picked players in free agency and trade that have made a significant impact.
That depth was on display in 2019 when the Yankees were one of three teams in the AL to win over 100 games, even though only two position players had more than 550 plate appearances. That depth was on display last season when eight of the top nine in plate appearances posted a wRC+ of 106 or higher and seven of them were at 110 or higher, which means that seven of the nine most frequent batters performed at least 10% above league average. Many were much higher.
To me, the early playoff exit and the somewhat lackluster performance relative to expectation could actually have the Yankees a little bit undervalued in the early going.
On the other hand, a win total in the mid-90s is among the highest in the AL and they are -200 to win the division.
Is the ceiling just that high for the Bronx Bombers?
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win AL East
|Team||Odds To Win|
|New York Yankees||-200|
|Tampa Bay Rays||+350|
|Toronto Blue Jays||+350|
|Boston Red Sox||+2000|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+44 (5.10/4.37)||+134 (5.60/4.77)|
|3rd Order Win%||35.2-24.8||95.5-66.5|
|Record in One-Run Games||6-7||18-19|
Additions: Derek Dietrich, Nick Goody, Robinson Chirinos, Jay Bruce, Kyle Barraclough, Darren O’Day, Asher Wojciechowski, Corey Kluber, Jhoulys Chacin, Socrates Brito, Jameson Taillon, Greg Allen
Losses: Ben Heller, Jonathan Holder, Tommy Kahnle, Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, J.A. Happ, Brett Gardner, Adam Ottavino, Frank German, Maikol Escotto, Canaan Smith-Njigba, Roansy Contreras, Miguel Yajure, James Reeves, Wynston Sawyer
The biggest move of the offseason for the Yankees is not listed here because it is neither an addition nor a loss. New York re-signed DJ LeMahieu to a six-year deal to lock up one of the most productive assets that Brian Cashman has acquired over the last few seasons. LeMahieu’s signing solidified a lineup that doesn’t really need any help going into 2021.
The starting rotation? That was an area of the team that needed help. With James Paxton leaving via free agency, Masahiro Tanaka headed back to Japan, and Luis Severino on the sidelines until later this season following Tommy John surgery, it was Gerrit Cole and a variety of question marks for the Yankees. They answered those questions by signing Corey Kluber and trading for Jameson Taillon.
We’ll see what Kluber has left in the tank after basically missing two straight seasons, but two-time Cy Young Award winners don’t grow on trees and the Yankees were one of almost 20 teams that watched Kluber throw during a free agent showcase and came away impressed enough to sign the 35-year-old.
Jameson Taillon is the upside play for me. I love this addition for the Yankees, as I’ll discuss more during the pitching section of the preview.
Between Nick Goody, Kyle Barraclough, and Darren O’Day, the Yankees are looking hard and heavy at right-handed sliders in the pen.
The losses don’t bother me that much. The Yankees carry a huge payroll and that often hides the fact that this is an organization that believes in having minor league depth and they’ve done a phenomenal job of graduating players to the big leagues or using that currency to acquire Major Leaguers via trade. It was another successful offseason as far as I’m concerned.
|Batting Average (BA)||.247 (14th)||.267 (4th)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.342 (4th)||.339 (4th)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.447 (7th)||.490 (3rd)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.341 (5th)||.346 (3rd)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||116 (4th)||117 (2nd)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.280 (21st)||.306 (6th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||21.7% (8th)||23.0% (12th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||11.4% (1st)||9.1% (12th)|
This offense remains downright scary. Aaron Judge was limited to 114 plate appearances last season and the Yankees still produced a top-10 unit with ease and one that ranked in the top five in wOBA and wRC+. It was DJ LeMahieu who provided hope for all players that leave the hitting haven of Coors Field and go elsewhere. The Coors Field Effect is a real thing, but elite-level hitters can figure it out and LeMahieu was one of those, with a K% under 10% and monster numbers across the board.
The next man up philosophy for the Yankees is something to marvel at year in and year out. Gary Sanchez was pathetic last season with a .271 wOBA and a 68 wRC+. He posted a .346 wOBA and a 116 wRC+ in 2019. Mike Tauchman, who posted a .364 wOBA and a 128 wRC+ in 296 PA in 2019, hung just a .286 wOBA and a 78 wRC+ in 111 PA in 2020. Those guys took huge tumbles from the previous season. For most teams, that would be a death knell offensively. Not the Yankees. Somebody else just produced.
It is just amazing to me that the Yankees continually get very little from Giancarlo Stanton and that Judge has missed a lot of time and they just keep getting production. Luke Voit hit 22 homers to lead all batters in the 60-game sprint. Giovanny Urshela, who had the big grand slam off of James Karinchak in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series against the Indians, posted a .365 wOBA and a 133 wRC+ while playing strong defense at third base.
Even Clint Frazier, a prospect whose name regularly came up in trade rumors, finally got his chance with the Bronx Bombers and posted a 149 wRC+ in 160 plate appearances. Some might say it’s the Yankee Mystique. Some might say it’s the Little League dimensions down the lines at Yankee Stadium. Whatever narrative you want to use, it’s wrong. This is an organization that prepares its players as well as any and it shows on the field. Sure, there is a ton of talent here, but the Yankees are regularly among the league leaders in exit velocity and Hard Hit%.
The Yankees even left runs out there, too. Home runs don’t count towards BABIP, which stands for batting average on balls in play. The Yankees were sixth in exit velocity and did hit the fifth-most home runs in baseball, but their .247 batting average was 20 points lower than the previous season.
A lack of road success was the big culprit. The Yankees scored 191 runs in 31 games at home and 124 runs in 29 games on the road. They were 22-9 at home and 11-18 on the road. I wouldn’t expect that to carry any great significance into 2021. After all, the Yankees scored 63 more runs on the road in 2019 than they did at home in the same number of games. The 2020 splits just feel like a random outlier in a strange season.
At risk of sounding like a Yankees homer, I can’t help but sing the praises of the little things that this team does. The Yankees walked in 11.4% of their plate appearances to lead the league. Generally speaking, when you walk a lot, you also strike out a lot. You’re batting in deep counts, so it’s just naturally going to happen. The Yankees didn’t. They had a top-10 K%. Of the 22 team seasons with a BB% of at least 10%, the 21.7% K% for the Yankees was the ninth-lowest. K% easily set a record high in 2020 across the league.
Now, the caveat here is that BB% did as well, so I would expect New York’s BB% to regress and probably see the K% increase a little bit. The four highest BB% seasons since 2010 came last season and nine of the top 13. Walks will decrease around the league.
However, that makes the Yankees lineup more dangerous because they do put the ball in play at a high rate, with a high rate of hard-hit contact, and hit for a lot of power. A lineup like that should have a lot more sticking power in 2021, no matter how the ball plays.
If I had one complaint, it would be that the Yankees didn’t hit enough fly balls. In 2018, the Yankees had a 38.2% fly ball rate. In 2019, it was 37.2%. In 2020, it was 34.4%. If we see a regression to the mean from them in what is the Launch Angle Era, I’d expect a boost in power production. The Yankees did have their highest line drive percentage since 2010, though, so they replaced fly balls with another form of quality contact.
The BABIP will go up. The SLG will go up. This will be a clear top-five offense in my estimation.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||4.35 (14th)||4.31 (14th)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||4.39 (12th)||4.47 (17th)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||4.24 (10th)||4.27 (6th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||24.8% (8th)||25.0% (7th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||7.9% (6th)||8.3% (10th)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||71.1% (15th)||75.2% (4th)|
It was the pitching staff that didn’t take the leap forward that we expected, but that could very well happen this season. Domingo German was suspended for the season. Luis Severino had to have Tommy John surgery. James Paxton was hurt again. The Yankees rotation, which was 17th in fWAR and 18th in FIP in 2019, jumped to eighth in fWAR and 10th in FIP anyway, mostly on the right arm of prized free agent purchase Gerrit Cole.
The Yankees will turn to Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon to fill the voids of Masahiro Tanaka and Paxton. Kluber, who won the Cy Young Award in 2014 and again in 2017, had a strong 2.89/3.12/3.08 pitcher slash and spectacular K/BB numbers in 2018. He was, however, a guy I was ready to fade in 2019. Back-to-back seasons with a HR/FB% north of 13% had me looking hard at the command profile and I expected five straight seasons of more than 203 innings pitched to catch up with him.
As it turned out, he did start very slowly in 2019, but then got hit by a line drive comebacker that fractured his arm and knocked him out for the season. Last year, Kluber pitched one inning for the Rangers, left with should discomfort, and never pitched again. It wound up being a Grade 2 teres major strain, which is similar to the injury that Mike Clevinger suffered at the start of 2019 for the Indians. Clevinger returned to post a 2.71/2.49/3.09 pitcher slash with 4.5 fWAR in just 126 innings, though he’s much younger and his body has taken less abuse.
Still, I wouldn’t worry about a hangover from the injury for Kluber. In fact, the two years off without an elbow injury might be good for him. His workload was quite extensive and the Indians rode him hard in the 2016 playoffs. At 35, there is a lot of wear and tear, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he has a quality 2021 season with so much time for the arm to rest.
Another thing I will watch closely is his pitch usage. Kluber’s four-seam fastball is average and his sinker is a below average pitch. His slider (more of a curve) and cutter are exceptional pitches. He also used a changeup more in 2017 with great success. Yankees left-hander Jordan Montgomery is a good comparison here. Montgomery has the standard-issue pitch mix with a sinker. The Yankees added a cutter for Montgomery last season and the pitch seems to be a work in progress, one that could be helped tremendously by Kluber’s tutelage.
Montgomery was the best pitcher you heard nothing about last season. He had a 95th percentile exit velocity against, an 88th percentile Hard Hit% against, and was in the 92nd percentile in BB%. You didn’t hear about him because he had a 5.11 ERA, due in large part to bad luck. His HR/FB% was elevated at 16.7% and his LOB% was 65%. His 5.11 ERA came with a 3.87 FIP and a 3.65 xFIP.
What stands out to me is the pitch usage for Montgomery. A few years ago, the Yankees made it a point to get pitchers to throw fewer fastballs. While they backtracked a little bit over the last couple of seasons, they’ve still emphasized swing and miss from the pitching staff via offspeed and breaking stuff. You even saw decreased fastball usage with a guy like Paxton, who actually adopted more cutters into his arsenal.
In a long-winded way, this is to suggest that Kluber will be throwing more cutters and fewer fastballs with the Yankees. I don’t know what the health profile will look like, but what I know is that the Yankees are absolutely one of the best fits for Kluber and a good place for him to have success. The Yankees also employ his trainer, Eric Cressey.
Similarly, Taillon, who worked 37.1 innings in 2019 and then missed all of 2020, is a fastball/slider guy that began ditching the sinker after the 2017 season. His SI% went from 35.1% in 2017 to 21.9% in 2018. His BABIP against went from .352 to .298. His K% only went up modestly, but his SwStr% (swinging strike percentage) jumped from 8.2% to 10.7%. It was even higher in 2019 before injuries got in the way.
One of my favorite offseason exercises is to look at the potential rationale that teams would use for acquiring a player. I believe Kluber sort of fell into the Yankees’ lap after that showcase throwing session, but I believe Taillon was very much a trade target. That is a guy that the analytics staff highlighted and I think he is an excellent fit.
So, I haven’t even mentioned Gerrit Cole, who is probably the best pitcher on the planet. Barring injury, we can pencil him in for a stellar season. Domingo German as a fifth starter is pretty special. He’s got the strikeout numbers and the swing-and-miss upside. The command remains a work in progress and a year away might not do him any favors, but Deivi Garcia, Michael King, Clarke Schmidt, Luis Media, and Alexander Vizcaino might make up the best Triple-A rotation in baseball if they all start there.
It’s been over 800 words and I’m just now getting to the bullpen. The Yankees swapped Adam Ottavino in what was essentially a trade for Darren O’Day. Ottavino went to Boston for financial relief and O’Day signed with the Yankees for $2.45 million to be a matchup right-hander.
The Yankees pen was oddly underwhelming last season, finishing 20th in fWAR and 20th in FIP. Aroldis Chapman only made 13 appearances. Ottavino led the team with 24 appearances, but had a 5.89 ERA as a byproduct of some bad luck and a high walk rate. Jonathan Holder also struggled badly, but he was let go. The primary relievers were just fine and I would expect this group to bounce back and I like lottery tickets like Goody and Barraclough.
Positives & Negatives
One of the most important factors for me when looking at season win totals is depth. As I just mentioned, the Yankees may have the best Triple-A starting staff in the minor leagues and it is entirely possible that any of the guys that fall short of a rotation spot will bolster the bullpen at the MLB level.
Everybody in the lineup has some sort of track record of success. That includes the guys on the bench. The depth from below is a little thin and the Yankees have endured a lot of soft-tissue injuries on the position player side. That would worry me a bit.
The 76 games against division foes don’t look as daunting as they have in the past. Many expect the Rays to take a step back with some of the attrition to the starting rotation. The Red Sox still have a good offense, but major pitching questions. The Blue Jays are getting there and have the makings of a stellar offense. The Orioles are still the Orioles. I think the Yankees are pretty clearly better than everybody else in the division and should win a high number of those AL East games.
New York Yankees Pick & Prediction: Over 95.5
This is not a bet, at least not yet, but I would say that it is one of the stronger leans. Teams like the Yankees probably went into the shortened season viewing it as a bit of a farce. The Yankees were a big favorite to make the playoffs and they did, even though they underperformed and underachieved. They followed up an underwhelming regular season with a quick playoff exit.
I think they’ll be ready from the jump here. The amount of Major League depth is astounding for this team, so if one guy stinks, another guy will step in and perform well. The Yankees are pretty clearly the top dog in this division and should fare well in those head-to-head meetings with the AL East.
The reason it isn’t a bet is because I usually don’t bet on the extremes either way. A record of 96-66 means playing .593 baseball for six months. Things happen that cut into the margin for error with those types of teams.
Do I think the Yankees will go over? Yes. Do I think they go way over? They could. Do I see a lot of scenarios in which they finish under this? Not really. But, with 30 teams at my disposal, I can focus more on the ones I really like. This is not one of them yet, but it certainly could make the cut if the team gets through Spring Training healthy.