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The Yankees’ contact problem is burning them in the ALCS

The Bombers are setting all the wrong records.

League Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Yankees once again find themselves in a tenuous position, down two games to nothing in a short series. This time it’s the Astros who have held the Bombers down. They jumped out to an early lead in Game One and then took Game Two in walk-off fashion. Both, however, worked out to be low scoring affairs. On the one hand, that speaks well of the Yankees’ pitching staff. It also condemns their lineup, though.

During the ALCS, the Bombers have combined to hit a paltry .190/.242/.276 with a .518 OPS. Part of that has to do with the quality of starting pitching the Astros have. Dallas Keuchel carved up the Yankees on Friday night. Then, on Saturday afternoon, Justin Verlander steamrolled the lineup. The other element at work here, however, is an inability to make contact.

The Yankees struck out a mind-boggling 27 times over the last two games. In general, I’m okay with the team having a high strikeout rate. I think that’s just the way this club plays. When power hitters fill the lineup, you live with the strikeouts. That’s part of baseball in 2017. Unfortunately, the team has gotten carried away. The at-bats are no longer competitive and you can expect a pair of strikeouts in each inning. That’s no way to win a ballgame.

Aaron Jude and Gary Sanchez in particular have been egregiously bad in the strikeout department. Judge struck out just once against Keuchel, but picked up a pair against Verlander. In a sense, this represents a continuation of his struggles dating back to the ALDS. There he struck out 16 times — a major league record. It looks like he’s working with an ever-expanding zone, and the Astros have pitched him perfectly. Nonetheless, essentially losing Judge in the lineup severely hurts the Yankees.

The same goes for Sanchez. The Yankees catcher has a reputation for being a powerful slugger. During the ALCS, however, he’s looked completely overmatched. He struck out three times on Friday and twice again yesterday. Sanchez appeared absolutely lost at the plate in Houston.

If it’s any consolation, the pair knows they need to adapt. They recognize the problem. “I’m definitely missing pitches I should hit,” Sanchez told the New York Post. Given their pedigrees and track records of success early in their careers, I’m fairly confident they can adjust and get back on pace.

Their tendency to recalibrate, to make adjustments and then succeed, stands out as a reason to keep the two sluggers in their current position. There are calls to drop Judge from batting second in favor of a lower spot in the lineup. I think that’s a overreaction at the moment. Even just a slight improvement would justify his presence in the two-hole. Moving Sanchez away from catcher, well, that one would just make the offense worse. Minor improvements in making contact would go a long way.

For most of the postseason, the Yankees have relied on other contributions of others in their lineup. The likes of Didi Gregorius, Greg Bird, and Todd Frazier have all come up big in the playoffs. That said, the team desperately needs to start making contact. These strikeouts, particularly the ones when a batter swings at a pitch far off the plate, could very well prevent the Yankees from making a trip to the World Series.