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This season was supposed to be different for the Yankees

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This season felt like it was going to be a special one, but it proved to be the exact opposite.

MLB: Wildcard-New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

About three weeks ago, I stumbled across this excellent article from FanGraphs writer Dan Szymborski about the Mets disastrous season, and it got me thinking about where exactly the Yankees season went wrong. I mean, to say that the Yankees didn’t live up to our predictably lofty expectations as fans is one thing, but does the data from the beginning of the year back up those expectations?

Leading up to the start of this season, the Yankees were widely viewed by many to be not only the favourites to come out of the American League, but also legitimate World Series contenders. And I’m not just talking about talking heads and fans here—even the data that nerds like me spend far too much time poring over throughout the season expected big things from this team. Here is a snapshot of the ZiPS projections for the American League that were released just one day before the season began:

FanGraphs

To generate their projections, Szymborski takes things like past performance and growth and aging curves to come up with about a million different scenarios—some account for injuries, others don’t, etc. After running each scenario against a team’s actual schedule, he averages the results out to create a kind of baseline overall projection, which is what you see above. (This is a horribly rough explanation, but if you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend you check out Szymborski’s definition in his own words. He did invent this projection system, after all.)

As you can see, the Yankees were projected to win 95 games and were given a 69.6-percent chance to win the division, an 88.6-percent change to make the playoffs, and a 12.1-percent chance to win the World Series, all of which were by far the highest ranks in the American League. Over in the National League, the only teams with a higher projected World Series win percentage were the San Diego Padres (12.4 percent) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (14.8 percent).

Though the overall record ended up landing pretty close to reality—to get within a difference of just three wins after a million different simulations is truly amazing to me—it’s clear now that the real-life postseason results didn’t exactly align with these projections. I’m not going to get into things we can’t concretely define in this article — things like management, coaching, and strength and conditioning, which have already been discussed to death — and I’m going to leave the micro-examination of individual players to a later date, but I want to know what, in general, went wrong this season. From the outset, it looks like a little bit of everything.

Injuries & COVID-19

I know you’re all probably sick of hearing this by now, but injuries once again ravaged this team. In fact, things were so bad in July that this was an actual lineup that the 2021 New York Yankees ran out against the Red Sox:

It should also be noted that Tim Locastro would end his season the very next night, Trey Amburgey would find himself on the injured list two days later, and Chris Gittens would injure his ankle just nine days later. In other words, the replacement players needed replacements.

Only three players — Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu (who was diagnosed with a season-ending sports hernia after the 160th game), and Brett Gardner — played in at least 140 games, with Giancarlo Stanton narrowly missing the cut at 139. In fact, the player who ranks fifth in games played is Gleyber Torres with 127, and he spent time on the COVID-IL in May and the regular IL with a sprained thumb in August. It’s true that injuries affect all teams, but it’s hard to overlook just how many the Yankees had this year.

Unexpected Regression & Poor Performance

There were only two regular players who produced a wRC+ above 100: Giancarlo Stanton (137) and Aaron Judge (148). Luke Voit (111) and Anthony Rizzo (113) could technically count, but Voit only played in 68 games and Rizzo only played in 49 for the Yankees. Additionally, DJ LeMahieu finished with a 100 wRC+, meaning he was exactly league average for the season.

Everyone else? Below. For some of these players — Brett Gardner, Rougned Odor, and Kyle Higashioka — a low wRC+ isn’t exactly a surprise, as they’re either old or have been unproductive for the majority of their careers. But for others—notably, Gary Sánchez, Gleyber Torres, Gio Urshela, and DJ LeMahieu—a season like this makes you wonder if this can be labeled poor performance, or whether this is a regression back to their baseline performance.

In the case of Urshela and LeMahieu, both were banged up all year so it’s a little easier to be forgiving. For Sánchez and Torres, though, their multi-season lack of production relative to their early-career success has become especially concerning. Is this the type of player these guys are now, or are there underlying factors to consider? Don’t forget, Sánchez has had a number of injuries in the past and had a particularly rough bout of COVID and Torres had both COVID and a sprained thumb. It’s hard to tell for sure, but to me, signs are pointing to regression.

Streakiness

Baseball has always been a streaky game, but the 2021 New York Yankees took that to a whole new level. Tied, in part, to the multitude of injuries and the overall lack of production glossed over above, the runs that this team went on were truly remarkable, both in a good and bad way. Here’s a breakdown of their season, chunk by chunk:

Baseball Reference

There are rollercoaster seasons, and then there’s what the Yankees just put us through. It’s not at all uncommon for a team’s success to fluctuate week-to-week, but to totally lack any sort of consistency is rare. Anecdotally, I’ve never seen a team look like legitimate World Series favourites for a stretch of 10 to 15 games, only to revert back to looking like a team who has never even seen a baseball before for the next 15.

Looking Forward

As I discussed on Wednesday, the Yankees are staring down the barrel of perhaps their biggest offseason in a long time. Where they go from here is anyone’s guess — neither a spending spree nor another long offseason of frugality would surprise me at this point — but with pieces like Stanton, Judge, and Gerrit Cole (Wild Card performance notwithstanding) firmly entrenched in your depth chart, and guys like Luis Severino and Jonathan Loáisiga poised to step up in a big way, it’s hard to not be at least somewhat optimistic about the damage this team has the potential to do in 2022. Big changes or not (and barring offseason/spring training injuries, of course), I imagine that the 2022 ZiPS projections will have them in a similar position at the end of the regular season. Let’s just hope the team lives up to the playoff expectations this time.