When it comes to offensive philosophy, the Yankees have been card counters at the black jack table.
Their system stacks one exit-velocity monster after another. They believe devotion to that power-hitting methodology will translate to roughly a .600 winning percentage. Who cares what the 40 percent in losses look like due to shortages of lefty bats, defensive stalwarts and athletes? If you win six out of 10, you make the playoffs and once there — with health and, perhaps, some fortune — a team can win it all.
Thus, faced with a 15-game crisis, do the Yankees stick doggedly to out-of-position defense and risk-averse, station-to-station offense in belief that over time — like an unflinching card-counting system — their 60 percent solution will return?
Brian Cashman participated in a teleconference with reporters Monday to “reinforce” that the Yankees “are not going to adjust course” after 15 games. He stressed patience over panic. Cashman, three-plus decades with the Yankees and two-plus as GM, mentioned experience has taught him to weather the annual bad stretches if you believe in your process and product.
“We know there are better days ahead,” Cashman said.
There has to be, unless you think the 2021 Yankees (5-10) are a .333 winning percentage and the AL’s worst team. Cashman and the organization have earned a benefit both of the doubt and of time. They have stared down every four-alarm regular-season dilemma for a quarter of a century to, at minimum, play meaningfully into late September — and most often October.
Yet, elements of these 15 games feel more worrisome than two bad weeks:
- Because it is not 15 games. Since the beginning of last season, the Yankees are 38-37 and the 38 is significantly created by overwhelming bad Orioles and Red Sox clubs last season. When faced with strong opposition, namely the Rays, the Yankees have looked unplugged and unglued. Maybe it is unfair to include a shortened pandemic season as part of this year, but it is possible that the Yanks have been trending the wrong way for more than 15 games.
- Pitching is better than ever at exploiting weaknesses with dominant high-spin, high-velocity stuff. The whole league is hitting .233 (Aaron Hicks’ career average, by the way), which is the lowest in MLB history.
Have opponents deduced how to expose a Yankees lineup made single dimensional by its paucity of lefties and reluctance to move runners? No team is seeing fewer fastballs (four- and two-seamers). The Yanks have been kept on the ground while striking out once every four plate appearances (the worst in their history). The item that helps overcome deficiencies in their defense and rotation length — the long ball — is way down: one homer every 30.7 at-bats compared to one every 20.4 last year.
Maybe familiarity, especially with the Rays, has stalled the Yankees and when they leave the AL East the offense will revive. That begins Tuesday night against Atlanta, though the opposing starter is a righty, Charlie Morton, quite familiar with making them miserable as an Astro and Ray.
“We trust our players, we trust our process,” Cashman said.
Got it. But when the offense is performing so badly, why not upgrade defense, athleticism, baseball IQ and lefty presence — especially since Brett Gardner in left, Mike Tauchman in center and Kyle Higashioka going into a 50-50 catching timeshare with Gary Sanchez might also provide better at-bats.
The Yankees want to give Clint Frazier an extended look. But is he a showcase warrior? The kind who will excel at a tryout camp and get drafted fifth overall due to elite bat speed and above-average foot speed and arm strength? Is he a bunch of enticing disparate skills that do not form a whole high-level player because of an inability to think and adapt in real time? Frazier is more talented than Gardner, but is he a better player, one who helps a team win more often?
Hicks looks lost. I have no idea if the Tauchman who hit so well in 2019 is real. I do know he is the Yankees’ top base-stealing threat, a better defender than Hicks and that an outfield of Gardner, Tauchman and Aaron Judge might save pitchers some pitches and base runners. Gardner and Tauchman insert lefty bats and athleticism, at minimum.
Sanchez has not been the Yankee problem. He is a misunderstood player because his body language suggests disinterest. He cares. But like Gardner to Frazier, is Higashioka less talented than Sanchez, but a better player? His defense is better. And his at-bats have been good. Will that be true if exposed more? Why not see by splitting catching duties?
I recognize Cashman’s reluctance to shift course after 15 games. But the offense has been so bad, why not improve the defense and diversity and, perhaps, get better run production, too?