If you’ve been following the Yankees this season, then I don’t need to tell you they’ve had trouble scoring runs in 2021. They currently rank 21st in MLB in runs per game, which ties them with the Chicago Cubs and leaves them two spots behind the 19th place Washington Nationals – two teams who called it a season in July and whose pitchers bat.
Of course, this came as a surprise to all of us, as they were the best offensive team in baseball over the 2019 and 2020 seasons. They led the league in R/G over that 222-game stretch, and if you believe that park factors may have played a role in that, then allow me to tell you that they led MLB in OPS+ over that stretch as well. They legitimately were the “savages in the box” that their manager claimed they were.
There have been countless opinions in print media, television media, and social media (from experts and non-experts) with numerous theories trying to explain the drop-off in production that’s been both puzzling and frustrating. I’m sure you’ve heard the theories (perhaps you’ve even expressed one or more yourself) about changes to the baseball, the Yankees lineup being too left-handed, too “all or nothing”, too many hitters with similar approaches, not enough small ball, etc. that may explain the decline.
I usually don’t lean toward the Occam’s razor end of the solution spectrum, but I do think it applies in this case. Could the Yankees' lack of run-scoring this season be as simple as five players that used to be “savages” have not been in 2021? Quite simply, DJ LeMahieu, Gio Urshela, Gleyber Torres, Luke Voit, and Clint Frazier were all somewhere between “very good” and “great” hitters over the 2019 – 2020 seasons. The Yankees have received nowhere near the level of production from that group this season as they did in the previous two.
I know I’m not the only fan to express that theory, but I do believe many are underestimating the extent to which those players’ production has dropped, and the extent that regression has driven the team’s struggles. The drop-off in production both individually and collectively, hasn’t been small, it’s been massive, and it’s cost the Yankees far more in the run-scoring department than any other obvious factor.
The most glaring drop-off has been the decline in power. All five hit with a lot of power over 2019 – 2020, and all have seen dramatic declines. Take a look at each player’s SLG over 2019-2020 and compare it to their 2021 production:
A powerful hitter with a .497 SLG was the least effective in the group at advancing baserunners over 2019-2020. That’s 52 points higher than the most effective in 2021.
Let’s check their OPS+, which not only is a better measurement of all-around contributions but also adjusts for the run-scoring environment (the 2021 numbers get boosted a bit because it’s harder to score runs in 2021 than it was in 2019 and 2020.)
*Reminder: 100 is league average. So Gleyber was 23 percent better than the league average in 2019-20, 13 percent worse in 2021.
Again, in the first sample, there are five players who are very good at both getting on base and advancing runners with power hitting. In 2021, Voit is the only player better than league average in a small sample size due to missing significant time due to injuries, and even he isn’t nearly as scary as he was in 2019 – 2020.
Let’s take a guess, albeit a crude one, about how many times these players were involved in plays that resulted in the Yankees scoring runs. Let’s look at each player's runs scored plus RBI for 2019-2020 and for 2021. (Before you put your calculator down and start typing nasty things to me in the comments section, I’m aware that runs and RBI don’t tell a very complete picture for player evaluation purposes. I’m only using them to get a sense of how many times a Yankee crossed the plate when one of these players was involved.)
*Numbers in both columns are scaled to per 162 games.
Runs + RBI per 162
Again, not a complete picture, but the 2021 group is involved in plays in which they score or drive in a run 44 percent less than the 2019-2020 group was. That is a lot fewer runs.
Again, these players missing time due to injuries, playing while recovering from injuries, and likely playing at less than 100 percent at times are big factors in this discussion, so this is much more of an observation than a critique. That said, injuries aren’t the only thing that can explain such an enormous reduction in performance, particularly with the rate statistics.
What could be the reason(s) for such a drastic reduction in offense? That’s a long discussion for another day, but I think it’s safe to say it’s not just changes to the baseball, as Toronto and Tampa Bay have been hitting the same baseballs as the Yankees and both teams hit home runs at a higher rate in 2021 than they did over 2019-2020. It also would be hard to argue that the Yankees lineup has been too redundant and relying too much on right handed power. All five hitters above are right handed and all were power hitters over 2019-2020, so if anything one could argue the 2021 group doesn’t have enough right-handed power hitters - they essentially went from eight of them in 2019-2020 to three in 2021 (Judge, Stanton, Sánchez.)
Regardless of causes and solutions, the drop-off in production from these five players has led to a huge drag on the Yankees’ run-scoring capabilities. It’s a far simpler and more likely answer to the question of what’s wrong with the 2021 Yankees’ offense than any other possibility or contributing factor.