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How the Yankees lost the AL East, and the ALDS

The Yankees were historically bad at hitting with runners in scoring position this year, and the ineptitude continued into the Division Series.

Gleyber Torres led the 2018 Yankees by hitting .308 with runners in scoring position.
Gleyber Torres led the 2018 Yankees by hitting .308 with runners in scoring position.
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Much has been said and written about New York’s loss to Boston in the Division Series. The micro-analysis of everything including Aaron Judge’s trolling the Red Sox with Sinatra, the underwhelming starting pitching, and Aaron Boone’s decision making is in full swing.

I have a feeling that the same people criticizing Judge now would probably be praising his action as a stroke of genius if the Yankees had won the series. Likewise, Boone’s decisions that worked out well — such as the move to start Severino and go right to Betances for two frames in the Wild Card Game — would continue to be a focal point of commentary had New York survived Boston and advanced to play in the LCS. The manager on the losing side of a postseason series is always second-guessed, as if he has a crystal ball and could have foreseen and avoided the result. It’s always been that way, and I suspect it always will be.

Sure, the Yankees’ starting pitching (aside from Tanaka) was less than inspiring. But except for the Game Three dumpster fire, New York’s pitching overall was good enough to win this series. The Yankees lost because of the same problem that plagued the team all year long. Simply put, the 2018 Yankees were historically bad at hitting with runners in scoring position.

New York’s .253 batting average with RISP represents the 15th-worst production in franchise history (since 1920). Yankee teams that fared worse than this year’s squad include seven from 1965-71 (during the dark days under CBS ownership), the 95-loss 1990 group, and a couple from the end of World War II when top players were away serving the country. None of the Yankees’ World Series championship teams hit worse than this year’s club with runners in scoring position. Unsurprisingly, Boston paced the AL this season by hitting .289 with RISP.

The Red Sox also boasted one of the lowest strikeout rates (20.6%) with runners in scoring position, while the Yankees produced one of the highest (26.6%). That six-point spread might not seem like much, but it would have meant putting the ball in play an additional 78 times over the course of the season. Even with a league-worst .282 batting average on balls in play with RISP, that represents 22 more hits for the Yankees. That’s a lot of runs, and just a couple would have come in handy versus the Red Sox during the playoffs.

The Yankees’ ineptitude at hitting with runners in scoring position, as well as Boston’s prowess, came to the forefront during the ALDS. New York went a dismal 4-for-26 (.154), while the Red Sox hit .400 (14-for-35) with runners on second and third. The disparity was the difference in the series.

In Game One, the Yankees fell into a 5-0 hole, as J.A. Happ struggled and Chris Sale dominated early. But in the sixth inning, the Yankees finally showed signs of life. Judge led off with a single, Brett Gardner grounded into a force out, and Giancarlo Stanton singled to knock Sale out of the game. Ryan Brasier came on in relief, and immediately gave up an RBI single to Luke Voit. Didi Gregorius grounded into a force play, driving in Stanton for New York’s second run.

New York managed to bring the potential go-ahead run to the plate, but came up empty. Miguel Andujar walked, and Gary Sanchez drew a four-pitch walk after Brandon Workman replaced Brasier. Workman rebounded to strike out Gleyber Torres swinging, and the Yankees left the bases loaded. Sure, they got on the board, but they also left some important runners stranded. Unfortunately, it got worse.

The Yankees loaded the bases again in the seventh, this time with nobody out, but they only managed to plate one run. McCutchen and Judge singled, and Gardner walked. After Stanton struck out swinging, Voit grounded into a RBI-force out, and Gregorius grounded out to kill the rally. Game One was eminently winnable, but the Yankees just didn’t get the job done when they had the chance.

They also fell short in Game Three, long before it became a laugher with a position player pitching. With the Yankees trailing 1-0, Stanton singled to lead off the bottom of the second. Didi bunted him into scoring position, but Sanchez and Andujar grounded out. Boone’s much-criticized decisions from that point on might have been different if the Yankees had tied the game there. The Bombers got the leadoff man on in the third, but left him stranded as well. Who knows how Game Three would have turned out if the Yankees’ offense executed early.

I have no doubt that Game Four was winnable, but once again, the Yankees failed to execute. Gregorius roped a one-out double in the fourth, but was left stranded when Stanton and Voit grounded out. Craig Kimbrel couldn’t find the plate in the ninth, and while the Yankees managed to score twice, they also left two men on base to end the game. Let’s face it, with Kimbrel struggling and on the ropes, they beat themselves there as well. The Yankees could have won the ALDS, despite the other issues, but just didn’t come through with clutch hitting.

This problem persisted all year. I wrote about it in July. In fact, recent Yankees teams have all posted sub-par numbers with runners in scoring position. They also fared poorly in other situational-hitting categories such as in high-leverage spots, late and close games, and runner-on-third and less than two outs opportunities.

This seems like an organizational problem that could easily be corrected with coaching, once the decision is made. The question is, will the front office decide to do something about it? Or will we continue to see the Yankees outplayed by Boston (and others) next year and on into the future in this critical aspect of the game? That, to me, is the number one question facing the Yankees as they begin the offseason.