Leading up to and in the wake of Derek Jeter’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony, fans have been sharing stories and articles about the Yankee Captain. Jeter’s modus operandi was his consistency, and many of the pieces I read mention that shortstop is the only position he ever played in the field. At the plate, his positioning was predictable as well. Out of the 2,747 MLB games he started, Jeter batted first or second in the order for 2,452 of them. In other words, he more or less occupied the same spot in the batting order in 90 percent of the games he played. That he had the same role in the field and at the plate undoubtedly helped Jeter establish the daily routines and habits that enabled him to succeed.
The 2021 Yankees could use a reminder regarding the benefits of this kind of consistency. Consider these anecdotes and think about what they suggest about the current Yankees organization.
Among ballplayers, pitchers — and starting pitchers in particular — are famously neurotic when it comes to maintaining the same routine and preparation process on game days. Knowing how fastidious pitchers can be, many fans and beat writers were surprised after the Yankees’ game against the Rays on April 16th, when Nick Nelson told reporters that he found out he would be starting Friday night’s game on Thursday night. It was very short notice, especially for a pitcher like Nelson, who transitioned into a reliever in 2019 and had not started a game in nearly two years.
Nick Nelson says he was informed Thursday night that he would be starting Friday night's game. He said he had to think back to when he was a starter (2019 and earlier) to remember the routine he used to prepare for those outings. Described it as "difficult."— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) April 17, 2021
Nelson’s start against the Rays is pretty emblematic of the way the Yankees frequently fail at putting players in a position to succeed. Whether it’s asking guys to man a position they don’t usually play, or giving pitchers less than 24 hours to prepare for a start, both the Yankees’ behind-the-scenes roster construction and Aaron Boone’s management style inhibit the team’s potential.
And they continue to do so: on Monday, Boone said the team is planning a regular defensive alignment of Gleyber Torres at second base, Gio Urshela at shortstop and DJ LeMahieu at third base for the remainder of the season, according to Lindsey Adler of The Athletic. The move makes sense, given that Gleyber is still a defensive liability at shortstop. Even so, the final stretch of the regular season is a lousy time to shake up the lineup and infield configuration. Yet, the Yankees roster construction is fundamentally flawed, so the team has to change it up somehow.
Having players cover new infield roles (again) for the last 19 games of the season is not exactly a recipe for success. Ballplayers thrive on consistency and routine, and repetition and preparation are key ingredients of the recipe. Taking pressure off of Gleyber might help the Yankees, but I also worry about Urshela and the effect that playing outside his typical position will have on him at this point in the season. Urshela, who typically shows masterful glovework at third base, has been in something of a funk since returning from the IL. He doesn’t look as comfortable as he usually does out there. Urshela is a competent shortstop and represents a defensive upgrade over Gleyber, but I do wonder if switching positions will prevent him from finding his usual groove at third before the end of the season.
Boone and the front office personnel involved in game-planning tend to not give players the best chance of success, and their collective mismanagement of Luke Voit in 2021 has been particularly aggravating. Voit had a dose of steady playing time while Anthony Rizzo was on the COVID-IL, and getting consistent at-bats was tremendously helpful for Voit. With regular reps at the plate, Voit began to resemble the home run king we saw in 2020 and during the Yankees’ 13-game winning streak he became the team’s hottest hitter. The Yanks are struggling offensively right now and could really use Voit’s bat in the everyday lineup.
Now that Giancarlo Stanton is playing in the outfield again — and hits better when he does — Stanton’s empty DH spot would theoretically be an excellent opportunity for Voit to get at-bats everyday. Theoretically, that is, because inexplicably, the Yankees are not taking advantage of what appears to be a perfect solution. All season Stanton has reiterated that he would prefer to get outfield reps, rather than DH everyday. And for whatever reason, Boone remains hesitant to fully cede the DH lineup spot to Voit.
The team hamstrings its own lineup by continuing to slot in Stanton at DH some of the time. With Stanton in the DH spot, Voit has been pinch-hitting off the bench. Boone’s usage of Voit as a pinch-hitter is puzzling and stymies Voit’s chances of getting a hit — he’s the kind of player who needs regular at-bats to produce. The Yankees could be playing Stanton in the outfield more and keeping Voit in the lineup at DH. Why aren’t the Yankees doing this more regularly?
The way the Yankees have been forcing players into roles they are not well-suited for didn’t begin this year. Who could forget the way the Yankees used Deivi García as an opener for J.A. Happ in the 2021 postseason? The plan didn’t work, and Happ’s remarks after the game suggested he wasn’t on board with the idea in the first place. Happ has been a starter for his whole baseball career. That the Yankees didn’t see a problem with carrying out the strategy, despite their starting pitcher being uncomfortable with it, is revealing.
JA Happ on if he was put in a position to succeed tonight:— Yankees Videos (@snyyankees) October 7, 2020
"That's not a question for me to answer." pic.twitter.com/QNDJSkEDbm
A successful game strategy requires a full buy-in from the players, coaches, and everyone involved. The Yankees should revise their current process so that it’s more collaborative, with management taking full advantage of players’ strengths and areas where they can contribute. The current operation with Boone as at least a figurehead does not empower players to succeed, and the Yankees look uncompetitive because of it.