Talk to most any member of the Yankees roster or staff these days, and you’ll likely hear some pretty common refrains. Perhaps they’ll stress optimism, even in the face of dire straits. Press them on the struggles of a seemingly loaded lineup, and you might hear Aaron Boone express confidence that “Over the long haul [the offense] will be an overwhelming strength of the team.” Process over results will be emphasized, like when DJ LeMahieu stated this weekend that “We didn’t get the result. We didn’t get the win. But I really like how we’re playing. I know those results are going to come.”
It’s hard to fault Boone and the others on the ground for their unceasing optimism. This calm in the face of the storm is precisely what Boone was brought in to provide, and a few yelling matches or blowups, as fun as they can be, aren’t likely to do anything to spark an offense that needs runs, not screams. But over two months into a frustrating season, Boone and the rest of the Yankees hide a sinister reality with their commitment to hope.
For the first weeks of the season, as the Yankees sputtered out of the gate, Boone and Co.’s even-keeled approach was a boon. There’s no sense burning it all down over a 5-10 start, or even a sluggish April. The Yankees were right to exude patience then, because they knew that the season was long, and that the players on the roster possessed excellent track records that were belied by a mere few weeks of uneven 2021 performance.
As sensible as patience was an April, it is wholly inadequate now. The Yankees can no longer rely on the fact that their players are likely to play closer to expectations from here on out. It is too late for positive regression to the mean. The Yankees cannot blindly adhere to the status quo; only something that truly shakes the status quo can save their season and get this team where it needs to go.
For the Yankees players themselves, there surely must be something comforting about believing that if they keep grinding and eventually start playing like they’re supposed to, things will work out. In a way, they’re almost right. FanGraphs depth chart projections, in spite of the waves of injuries and ineffectiveness that have plagued the team, have the Yankees as the second-best team in baseball the rest of the way. PECOTA pegs them for a .609 winning percentage through the end of the season, a 99-win pace over 162 games.
To some extent, Boone is probably right that better things are on the way if the team continues to focus on executing the next pitch, the next at-bat, until the runs and wins start spilling their way. The problem lies in how deep the hole they’ve dug already appears.
Playing to their projections would net the Yankees about 88 wins and a tie for third place in the AL East by FanGraphs’ estimations. Ditto for Clay Davenport’s projections. PECOTA is the most bullish of the bunch of public forecasts, and even it can only tender a 92-win guess, not enough to dethrone the reigning division champs down in Tampa. The takeaway is clear: even if the Yankees do as they claim and play to expectations the rest of the way, the best they can realistically hope for in doing so is an upper-80s win total and a one-game playoff to advance to the ALDS.
This is not what the 2021 Yankees were constructed to do. This club was thought to have left trivial coinflip Wild Card games and division races in the past, concerned only with pennants and championships. If they are to fulfill their supposed destiny, they have to do something.
The team’s realistic routes to something more than a Wild Card berth are obvious and twofold. Either the team can make a genuine, impactful move (or moves), or they can pray that their players don’t just regress positively to the mean, but play far, far above it. The former path would require the team’s brass to recognize that the Yankees as currently constructed are not on track to hit their upper-90 win expectations, and pay the price, in prospects and cash, that is required to make meaningful upgrades. The latter path amounts to wishful thinking. Perhaps the roster as it stands could suddenly play at the 105ish-win pace that would be required to get the Yankees above 97 wins and to a division title. That’s not a bet the front office should be willing to make.
How the Yankees operate in the next month will inform us of their priorities and their mindset. If Hal Steinbrenner budges on his adherence to ducking the luxury tax and authorizes Brian Cashman to at least try for, say, Max Scherzer, or Ketel Marte, or Starling Marte, or any pitcher or outfielder on a bad team, that would signal they understand that the status quo won’t cut it. If the company line sticks at “we just need to focus on the process” and “Luis Severino and Luke Voit are our deadline additions,” we’ll know that they’d rather cling tight to their profits and prospects, content to cross their fingers that a team that has sleepwalked through 65 games will go on a biblical tear through the second half.
The Yankees are better than they’ve shown. The core of players that won 203 games across Boone’s first two seasons is still in place. The lineup that tore the likes of Shane Bieber, Blake Snell, and Tyler Glasnow to shreds in last year’s playoffs still exists on paper. But the Yankees cannot let the fact that this roster can play better blind them to the hill they must climb. The status quo will not suffice, not when the team has fallen eight games back in the division approaching the halfway point. Regression to the mean will not do. If the Yankees have a plan beyond hopes and prayers, they best execute it soon.