The Yankees have had trouble scoring runs this season. This is not news to anyone who follows the team. The extent to which they’ve struggled to get runners across the plate, however, may be news to you. It’s not that the team’s run-scoring ability has been below average or even bad — it’s been worse than that. When this club’s performance is compared to other teams in the American League this season, and to other Yankee squads over the past five decades, futile is a more appropriate term, and perhaps a generous one at that.
Currently, the Yankees rank 11th in the 15-team AL in runs per game. If you’re thinking that’s not that bad, I’ll add some context for you: The Yankees have consistently been between Nos. 12 and 14 on this list for the vast majority of the season (I know this because I am a glutton who’s fascinated by figurative train wrecks). Secondly, the four teams that rank 11th through 14th – New York, Seattle, Baltimore, and Kansas City – all average 4.2 runs per game, well behind 10th-place Cleveland. Increasing the number of decimal places is the only way to separate the four, so it’s not so much 11th as it is a four-way tie for second-worst above Texas.
For even more context, I’ll add this: The Yankees’ R/G has risen recently (they were 14th a week ago) due to a few recent results that were rather large outliers. Last week, the Yankees put up two football scores against the Orioles, who are by far the league’s worst team at preventing runs. Then on Monday, after another weak nine innings, the Yankees added five runs in two innings that were started with a runner on second base. Even with the benefit of those recent outlier boosts, the Yankees have still only managed a virtual tie for the second-worst R/G in the AL. A more fair assessment would be to note that in their last 19 games outside of the aforementioned outliers, the team has scored five runs twice, and four or fewer in every other game since July 22nd.
Speaking of extra-inning games, the Yankees have played more extra-inning games than the other three teams they’re “tied” with as well (10 more than Kansas City, and 7 more than Baltimore in fact). Due to their proclivity for close contests, the Yankees have played the equivalent of more than two full baseball games with innings that started with a runner on second base. If you’re curious about seven-inning games that may have reduced their running scoring opportunities, rest assured they’ve been a beneficiary of luck in that regard as well: They’re tied for the fewest number of seven-inning games among the four teams mentioned above. They’ve played in more innings per game than Seattle, Kansas City and Baltimore, and still, “Texas is worse than us” is roughly the best that can be said.
Regardless of how long you’ve been a Yankee fan, it’s safe to say that you’ve seen predominantly good teams, especially good offensive ones, over your fandom tenure. You might be wondering where this season’s output (talk about a misnomer) ranks with other Yankee teams historically. Given the current 2021 R/G rankings of 10th-ranked Cleveland and 15th-ranked Texas, the Yankees are very likely to finish somewhere between 11th and 14th in the AL in R/G this season.
For some historical Yankees perspective, since the start of divisional play in 1969, the Bombers have had only five seasons in which they finished 11th or worse in the AL in runs per game: 1969, 1990, 1991, 2014, and 2016. If, like me, your memory of those teams is a little hazy, let’s have a brief review:
1969: The 1969 team finished 11th out of 12 teams in R/G, and were outscored by both the Seattle Pilots and Washington Senators by a pretty wide margin
1990: The only Yankee team to finish dead last in R/G since divisional play. Steve Balboni posted a 94 OPS+, good for third-best on the team among regulars.
1991: Led by team OPS+ leaders Mel Hall and Matt Nokes, who each posted a 113 OPS+, the 1991 group finished 12th out of 14 in R/G.
2014: Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury tied for the team lead in OPS+ (no, I’m not joking) as the team finished the season 12th in R/G in the AL.
2016: Not counting Carlos Beltran, who was traded mid-season, the 2016 group had nine players with more than 240 plate appearances , and not one of them posted an OPS+ of better than 99. Somehow, they stayed out of the R/G basement, finishing 12th in the AL.
It’s important to note that if you’d like to argue that runs are a result-based statistic and don’t paint a complete picture of a team’s offensive skills, I wouldn’t disagree — randomness is always going to be a factor to a certain extent. For example, the 2021 club’s 97 OPS+ is better than all of the other Yankee teams mentioned above (the 2014 and 1991 groups topped out at 94 OPS+).
That said, OPS+ and other advanced metrics weigh the ability to get on base heavily (as they should) and this 2021 group is still pretty good at getting on base. The problem is that they are between bad and awful at so many other aspects of offensive production. So much so, that the infrequency with which they score runs gets them in the discussion of offensive ineptitude with the awful teams mentioned above. They’re not even living up to the famous “Bronx Bombers” nickname, as their 137 homers entering Wednesday ranked three below league average. That is all either very disconcerting or very entertaining, depending upon one’s mood.
Diagnosing the causes and solutions of the problem is a topic far too expansive to cover today. No one asked me but if they did, I’d say the scarcity of runs is not due to injuries, the lineup being too right-handed, too “all or nothing,” or too redundant — all those factors were in play in 2019-2020 when the team led MLB in R/G. Nor is it due to changes in the ball, as other teams that rely on power are hitting the same baseballs and they’re hitting them a long way while scoring a lot of runs.
Regardless of causes and solutions, the 2021 Yankees’ inability to get runners across home plate has been a worse problem than many of us may have realized, and we all knew it was bad. It’s absolutely an aspect of the game that needs to improve quickly and drastically if this season is to end on a happy note.