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Musings on the Yankees’ maddening matinee malaise in 2021

Four key players saw their numbers sink in day games, giving the Yankees fits of frustration in afternoons all year long.

New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

As the Yankees’ offense floundered on Sunday afternoon against Bruce Zimmermann, I couldn’t help but notice that it felt oddly familiar. No, I’m not talking about the Yankees’ inability to consistently subdue the lowly Baltimore Orioles, a defining feature of the 2021 which has continued to rear its ugly head in 2022 (at least in the first week of the season). Rather, I’m referring to the fact that, when the lights are off, the Yankees consistently shrink.

Last season, the Yankees were absolutely inept during day games, posting a dismal 25-34 record, a 69-win pace; in night games, for comparison, they were 67-36, a 105-win pace. During the day, they were one of the worst teams in baseball, ahead of only in the Orioles and Texas Rangers in the American League; at night, they were the AL’s best team. So what happened?

Start off with the team-wide splits from 2021, courtesy of Baseball Reference. Note that the top image is hitting splits, while the bottom is pitching splits.

It’s evident that the Yankees struggled both at the plate and on the mound in day games last season, with no other split having nearly as large a disparity in performance. The difference is particularly noticeable at the plate, with the team’s .778 OPS in night games being roughly equivalent to the Boston Red Sox, while its .635 OPS during the day would have been worst in the AL by more than 30 points. Additionally, the Yankees at night pushed across 4.9 runs/game (would be tied for 5th in the AL), but during the day, that figure dropped to 3.4 runs/game (would be worst in the AL by 0.4 runs).

What was powering that drop in offense while the sun was out? The chart below depicts day/night OPS splits from 2021 Yankees players, with the highest-OPS players on the left and the lowest on the right. Note that for Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo, these splits included games played with the Rangers and Cubs as well.

It’s plain to see that although almost every member of the Yankees lineup hit better at night (with the exception of Gallo, Rizzo, and Clint Frazier), the two worst culprits were Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. “Big G,” in fact, was particularly bad during the day, as only 4 of his 35 home runs came in matinees, while his .618 OPS in that stretch meant he was roughly the equivalent of David Fletcher (71 OPS+) and Elvis Andrus (73 OPS+) in those contests.

While Judge’s performance did drop, it was at least from an otherworldly level — he hit as well as Juan Soto at night — to above-average, as he put up the offensive numbers of roughly Andrew McCutchen and Austin Meadows during the day. Even so, the Yankees were already struggling to put up runs consistently in 2021; having Judge and Stanton not performing their best in day games certainly did not help.

On the mound, things were a little more complicated, with multiple Yankees pitchers — including Jameson Taillon and Nestor Cortes — pitching better during the day than they did at night. However, the two most important Yankees pitchers last season, Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery, struggled in these spots, and they combined for 23 daytime starts (the first pitcher is Cole’s splits, the second Montgomery’s).

Ultimately, there’s your answer to the Yankees’ struggles in day games last year. Baseball Reference has Judge, Cole, Montgomery, and Stanton as four of the top five Yankees leaders in WAR last season (Jonathan Loáisiga was ranked fourth). FanGraphs ranked them one to four. When your best players don’t play well, it’s hard to win ballgames, and last season, the Yankees’ top players both on the mound and at the plate played significantly worse during the day than they did at night.

Of course, going forward, what we really want to know is, “Should this be a problem going forward?” While it’s impossible to know for certain, it was probably little more than random chance that all four players struggled so mightily during day games last season, likely representing the type of weird happenstance that occurs in baseball when dealing with small sample sizes. All four players have put up top-of-the-line performance in both day and night games over the course of their careers. Chances are, they’ll repeat that performance, turn 2021 into a weird outlier, and in the process, make day games much more bearable for the Yankees going forward.