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Should we have seen the Yankees’ streakiness at the plate coming?

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When comparing some traditionally streaky bats to a pair of underperforming players, some key answers become apparent.

Seattle Mariners v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

It’s no secret that the Yankees have been an incredibly streaky team this season — the streakiest team in the league, according to leadoff hitter DJ LeMahieu. After opening the season with 5-10 and 23-9 stretches, they have alternated cold stretches with hot streaks that has most recently included a 13-game win streak followed up by a 2-11 stretch that included a seven-game losing streak.

Although the rotation and the bullpen have contributed somewhat to this streakiness, the bulk of the blame goes to the offense. Over the course of August’s 13-game win streak, the Yankees offense scored the second-most runs in the league and posted a 128 wRC+. Since then, that wRC+ has been almost cut in half to 68, with only Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo putting together above-average performances at the plate.

As the season has gone on, we’ve tried on many occasions to break down why the Yankees offense has failed to meet expectations. In many ways, this streakiness has been one of the biggest contributors to the Yankees’ lackluster offensive performance this season, as the team’s inability to have a significant portion of the lineup on a hot streak at the same time has made it difficult to put runs on the board. But is this a flaw that we should have seen coming, or is this streaky tendency new to the 2021 Yankees?

The Archetypes: Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sánchez

In many ways, it can be difficult to summarize the concept of streakiness into one or two stats, instead requiring a more wholistic view of the player’s entire batted profile. Fortunately for us, the Yankees have two players who have been insanely streaky in their careers, outfielder/designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton and catcher Gary Sánchez. Within this season, Stanton opened the year with a .158/.238/.333 slash line in his first 15 games, followed that up with 16 games with a .409/.466/.758 slash, and followed that hot streak up with 10 games in which he had only three hits and struck out 17 times — all before June 7th! Sánchez, meanwhile, began the season with a .846 OPS in his first 10 games, then had three hits in his next 12 games, before posting a 27-game stretch that covered the month of June with a 1.050 OPS. He followed that hot month, however, by only having nine hits in the entire month of July.

So what does that look like visually? Here are both Stanton’s and Sánchez’s running xwOBA for the 2021 season:

Each player has had multiple peaks and valleys over the course of the season, alternating between periods in which they were performing well above the league average and periods in which they were well-below. And while it’s true that all hitters will go through ups and downs like this, the length of time they spend within them is unique. Compare, for example, these two to 2019 DJ LeMahieu, who has the same number of valleys (six) but who spent much less time in them:

The ability to quickly work out of a cold snap, and not the ability to avoid them, separates the streaky players from the consistent ones; that is what we will be looking for.

Gleyber Torres

On the whole, the young shortstop has had a bad season at the plate, with a wRC+ of 87 ranking 20th among shortstops with at least 400 plate appearances this season. Every once in a while, however, he has shown signs of the hitting ability that made him a two-time All-Star before he turned 23: from May 1st to June, he posted a .320/.388/.437 slash, albeit with only six extra-base hits, while from July 9th to August 8th, he slashed .304/.343/.489 with 11 extra-base hits. Outside those stretches, however, he has been abysmal: he posted a .614 OPS in April and has posted a .528 OPS so far in September, both of which rank in the bottom-third among shortstops. That has given him a rolling xwOBA chart that looks like this:

Torres has an immense amount of valleys this year — he drops under league average on at least 13 occasions by my account, although “only” six of them see him stay under for any significant stretch of time. That said, arguably the bigger problem is that his peaks have not been all that impressive, topping out at just over .450 (for comparison, Stanton tops out at over .550, and Sánchez at .550). Unfortunately for the Yankees, this pattern does not compare favorably with his 2019 All-Star season, as his graph in that season has only slightly fewer valleys (12, by my count), and those valleys seem to stay under league average for roughly the same amount of time. The big difference, however, is that the peaked at higher points, and they “settled” at higher levels as well.

Gio Urshela

Coming into the season, Urshela had been the model of consistency: since taking over as the Yankees starting third baseman early in the 2019 season, he only had two months with an OPS lower than .700 (June and September 2019), resulting in back-to-back seasons with OPS+ above 130. Then, 2021 happened, and everything seemed to change. In only one month, June, did Urshela post an OPS above .770, while May saw him return to his pre-Yankees hitting ability, and he has hit almost like a pitcher in the last six injury-filled weeks (just 4 hits in 12 games).

I say “seemed to change,” however, because the batted ball profile does not exactly reflect a streaky hitter, but instead a hitter that has struggled to get going after missing most of August with hamstring and hand issues.

When we compare it to his 2019 graph, another trend becomes clear: namely, that Urshela has a similar number of peaks and valleys this year compared to his previous performances. The difference, however, is that his overall “baseline” performance is lower this year, which means that more valleys come below league-average relative to 2019.

What this tells me is that the Yankees’ hitters haven’t necessarily been streakier this year than in years past — rather, it’s that their performance across the board has been lower than they had been, which makes the valleys more noticeable as more of them represent genuinely bad performance (instead of simply lower than a player’s average). Does this provide a blueprint for the Yankees to hit more consistently this season? Unfortunately not. It does, however, further reinforce what we’ve been seeing this entire year, that top-to-bottom, the Yankees lineup has been failing to meet expectations.