Just a week and a half ago, Yankees fans were riding high. The Bombers had just gone on a massive 13-game winning streak that put the team firmly in the driver’s seat for the Wild Card and which even made the AL East crown appear slightly more attainable than a pipe dream. All-around dominance from the lineup, the rotation, and the bullpen propelled the team to two weeks’ worth of wins, almost all of which came within a margin of victory of three runs or fewer.
Since then, however, the Yankees have been nothing short of catastrophic. They lost four straight immediately following the streak, which was historic on its own, and then lost two out of three at home to the cellar-dwelling Baltimore Orioles of all teams. In the words of a former manager, “It’s not what you want.”
When that winning streak ended, we took a dive into the data to break down what powered that Yankees hot stretch. In the interest of determining what is wrong with this team, we will do the same for the nine games since then.
Note: This was written prior to the Yankees’ 5-1 loss to Toronto on Tuesday night — another pitiful performance from the offense.
The Worm Killers Have Returned
If it seems like the Yankees have been hitting a lot of ground balls lately, well, you’re absolutely correct. Here are their batted ball profiles from August 28th through September 7th, courtesy of FanGraphs:
The red line in the above picture represents the worst team-wide ground-ball percentage in baseball this season — 47.1 percent, belong to the Washington Nationals.
It’s unfortunately true: The Yankees have a grand total of eight players who have hit groundballs at a higher rate than literally every team in the league. Worse, these figures include some very important bats that the Yankees need to elevate the ball on a consistent basis if they want to be competitive — Luke Voit, Gleyber Torres, DJ LeMahieu, and Aaron Judge. (Some credit it still due to Judge, who has a 131 wRC+ in this stretch anyway, though he did end Labor Day weekend in an 0-for-15 rut.)
Because of this change, New York has fallen back into an unwelcome old habit that especially ravaged the team during the first half. They’ve grounded into a grand total of 14 double plays in this stretch, almost three times as many as they did during the winning streak (a total of five). That is certainly not a recipe for success.
Coming into the season, everyone expected the Yankees to have one of the premier offenses in baseball. As fans of the game know, that has not come to pass, and for the most part, they have been perfectly league-average this year. That’s not an exaggeration; their teamwide OPS+ is a perfect 100, and their 175 home runs rank just slightly over the AL average of 173.
Over the last 10 days, however, average performance would be a revelation. Since the end of the winning streak, the Yankees’ lineup has posted a wRC+ of just 68, worse than everybody but the woeful Colorado Rockies, who have a 67 in that time. Additionally, they have accumulated -0.4 fWAR, the only club in baseball to be negative in this category during this stretch. The futility is truly team-wide:
Only Judge and Anthony Rizzo have been carrying their weight at the plate, with a shout-out to LeMahieu and Brett Gardner, who are at least getting on base at a decent clip. Everyone else, though, has been struggling at best and a black hole at worst.
Well, Gerrit Cole, Jordan Montgomery, Néstor Cortes Jr., Clay Holmes, and Lucas Luetge have pitched well, combining for 6 earned runs in 37.2 innings prior to last night’s matchup (a combined ERA of 1.43). Outside of them, however? Corey Kluber has struggled to provide the Yankees with any length since returning from the injured list, pitching three quality innings but then blowing up in the fourth in both starts upon his return. Jameson Taillon, meanwhile, appeared to hit a wall after having missed almost two full seasons. Although his Labor Day start offered a return to his July form, he had previously been unable to make it through the sixth in almost a full month, during which time he posted an ERA of 8.20.
The bullpen hasn’t necessarily been bad, but it has been inconsistent, struggling to hold onto the rare late lead or even a tie in most games, and on more than one occasion absolutely blowing up entirely (see: Heaney, Andrew and Kriske, Brooks). They’ll now also have to make do without their biggest weapon in Jonathan Loáisiga, who hit the IL with a rotator cuff strain. I can’t really blame the bullpen for the team’s overall woes, as successfully pitching as many high-leverage innings as they have this year is unsustainable. Nonetheless, it has come at arguably the worst-possible time, when the Yankees are in desperate need of stringing together wins to remain atop the Wild Card race.
When the Yankees won 13 in a row, all parts of the team were clicking on all cylinders, but even then, more than a little luck was required to keep the streak going for as long as it did. On the other hand, as the team stumbles through this rough stretch, the entire team minus a few exceptions (e.g., Judge, Cole, Rizzo), have made the frozen wastelands of Hoth look hot with their play.
If you’re looking bright side from these Jekyll and Hyde Yankees, their streaky play could prove a benefit if they happen to get it going at exactly the right time — the beginning of October. The rub, of course, is that they have to win ballgames between now and then in order for a hot streak to even matter at that point. The recent struggles have only made the Wild Card race even tighter; there’s no time to waste.