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What happened to the New York Yankees?

The Yankees were two games away from the World Series in 2019. Now, they look like a shell of their former selves. How did we get here?

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

I don’t know if I’m going to be shouting into the endless abyss here or if readers are going to come for my head for what I’m about to say, but I have to get something off my chest: I don’t find this Yankees team particularly fun to watch anymore. Since the start of the 2020 season, it feels to me that the life has been sucked out of this organization. I still genuinely love a lot of players on this roster, and am still obviously a huge fan, but I increasingly find myself getting more than a little frustrated with the general listlessness with which they seem to play the game. Or, rather, the general listlessness that I perceive, because I don’t doubt that they genuinely do care about the game. How did I get to this point?

Well, let’s start at the (kind of) beginning.

The span of time from 2017-2019 was probably the most excited Yankees fans were in quite some time. The team, anchored by a treasure trove of young talent known affectionately as the Baby Bombers and buoyed by the steady presence of veterans, was genuinely exciting to watch, night-in, night-out. The players were immensely likeable—not only because they got offensive production out of basically every regular, but also because they played with fire and personality—the team was very good, and, above all else, the product on the field was excellent. As I mentioned yesterday, I was even rooting for some of the depth players who got basically no playing time on those teams! It was a great time to be a Yankees fan.

Even though the team came up short three years in a row, it really felt like they were just one or two pieces away from winning the whole thing. After the team went out and gave Gerrit Cole the most expensive contract a pitcher had ever received to give the club the ace it so desperately needed, World Series aspirations were on once again. With this core, anything seemed possible.

Fast forward a couple years to the present moment. Coming off two straight lackluster seasons punctuated by poor performances, injuries, and early playoff exits, and staring down the barrel of yet another uninspiring start to the season, things have grown increasingly frustrating in Yankees-verse. I’ve done my fair share of criticizing when it comes to roster construction and player performance recently, but that’s not what I’m getting at here. Rather, I want to know when this team became so lifeless. Because, to my eye—and this may be the result of five straight years of disappointment and degrading play—the product that they present on the field is not the most aesthetically pleasing one around.

For starters, this team simply doesn’t play fundamentally sound baseball. It is extremely frustrating to watch a team make the same mistakes over and over when fielding or running the bases. I’ve been a vocal proponent of valuing offensive production over defensive ability, but at some point you have to make the routine play, right? I have no doubt that the players are constantly trying to get better, but it’s become hard to watch.

Another issue is, of course, regression. It’s no coincidence that this team was a lot more fun to watch when the guys not named Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton were producing on a consistent basis. How much of this regression is the league’s fault (via the juiced ball, among other things) is hard to say, but seeing a big portion of this team’s once-promising core fall off over the last two seasons has been mindbogglingly tough to accept.

Finally, three true outcome baseball isn’t exactly the most entertaining way to play the game. This may come as a surprise to some of you as I think I’ve made it abundantly clear that I’m someone who relies on analytics to inform both my understanding and enjoyment of the game, but I would be joking if I said this type of baseball is the most entertaining form the game can take. While I understand the logic that dictates this style of play, and I do acknowledge that it can work with the right team, it’s hard to find entertainment in it when it simply isn’t working.

It should go without saying that this is affecting baseball league-wide. At the same time, this is also a much deeper issue than the simple “analytics bad, old-school good” comments that pop up in every corner of the game. Unfortunately I don’t have the word count to wade into that debate here, but it’s become clear, at least in recent seasons, that an endless stream of strikeouts and walks only exacerbates this team’s issues, or at least this fan’s perception of those issues.

There have, naturally, been flashes of excitement here and there. DJ LeMahieu’s 2020 campaign was one for the ages, and Giancarlo Stanton is always good for a stretch of play where he looks like the best hitter to ever pick up a bat. And, obviously, home runs are exciting to watch, and the Yankees certainly hit their fair share of them. On the whole, though, these stretches get lost in the shuffle because the performances surrounding these individual contributions are sometimes a slog to get through.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love watching Judge and Stanton send baseballs into orbit and I will cheer for this team until I die. But where did all the fun go? At risk of sounding like an old man yelling at a cloud (I swear I’m only 29), it’s like the team lost its entire personality along with the ALCS back in 2019. Bring back the hilarious home run celebrations. Bring back the must-see TV moments. Bring back the savages in the box. In short, bring back the life.