It was picture day for the 2022 New York Yankees on Wednesday, and the timing couldn’t have been much more unflattering.
MLB clubs take team pictures in August for reasons that become apparent if you think about it for a second: The trade deadline has passed, prospects turned key rookies are generally up, and the squad that people will remember — especially for playoff teams — has generally solidified. That logic is all well and good, but it’s also unsettling for this team at this moment.
The Yankees are in the midst of a nauseating stretch of losing that has people questioning the bonafides of a team that got off to a historic, threaten-the-all-time-win-record type of start.
They have been awful since the All-Star break (9-18), and even worse in the narrower window of August (4-12). It feels utterly bizarre to watch a team that felt incapable of losing earlier this year suddenly forget how to play. It’s almost enough to make you think the baseball Monstars are currently filming Space Slam.
It’s also important to keep the full season in perspective. This is a team with 100% playoff odds, and a stranglehold on a division crown and a first-round bye. So after another deflating loss, let’s take a step back and look beyond the current disheveled appearance.
Just how worried should the Yankees be when they look in the mirror? And where do those worries actually lie?
Should the Yankees worry about … their summer swoon?
Not purely because of the (rare) wins and (abundant) losses.
All of the flailing and losing has so far been pretty ineffectual for the ultimate outcome of their season. The Yankees' division lead has shrunk from 15 1/2 games at its early July peak to a still-comfortable 9 games on Friday. The only tangible thing they have surrendered so far is home-field advantage in the ALCS if they meet the Houston Astros.
Right, you may be thinking, but isn’t this level of futility the sign of a fatal flaw? Of a team that won’t advance in the playoffs no matter how assured it is to reach October?
I’m here to tell you: It doesn’t mean much of anything on its own. Let’s take the Yankees’ past 16 games — miserable by all accounts, a 4-12 record. Well, just in recent memory, the 2017 Dodgers mired themselves in a 1-15 stretch from late August to mid September. Then they played all the way to World Series Game 7. The 2006 Cardinals were weird in every respect, but they won the World Series after languishing through a 3-13 stretch. And going back a little further, the 2000 Yankees stumbled to the finish line with a 3-13 run. They, of course, won the World Series.
The World Series champs in … deep breath … 2019, 2017, 2014, 2011, 2010, 2008, 2006 and 2003 also had runs of 4-12 or worse at some point in their banner years.
The same general gist is true if you expand out the Yankees' lesser moments to 27 games, 33 games or 54 games. Lots of playoff teams, and at least a few champions, have played as badly or worse.
Now, it’s fair to say that the Yankees’ August could become eyebrow-raising if it were to continue apace. The Yankees would need to win eight of 12 to get over that .400 winning percentage mark this month, and it is less common to see a good team stumble like this after the trade deadline. In the wild-card era, 16 eventual playoff teams have slogged through the months of April or May with winning percentages of .400 or worse. But over that same span, only eight have done it in August or September.
Yet even among that group of post-deadline swooners, two reached the World Series (1998 Padres, 2017 Astros) and, as everyone now recalls with a big mental asterisk, one of them won it.
Should the Yankees worry about … a power outage behind Aaron Judge?
Digging into the roots of the losing, we start to find more reason to be concerned, but the lineup is probably a case of bad timing more than a true weakness. Since the All-Star break, the offense has been kneecapped by injuries to Giancarlo Stanton and Matt Carpenter, which coincided with squirm-inducing slumps by Gleyber Torres and Aaron Hicks. Josh Donaldson, whose walk-off grand slam briefly lifted Yankees’ fans hopes Wednesday night, has also dipped in a less dramatic way.
Aaron Judge, who’s on pace for 63 homers and an MVP award, has kept the offense from sinking to the depths with a ridiculous .333/.483/.817 line since the break. Overall, the Yankees have the 13th-best offense over that span by the park-adjusted wRC+ metric. It’s worth noting that they have scored 110 runs and given up 120, which by the Pythagorean record formula — a handy way of gauging how much luck has tipped the scales for or against a team — is the mark of a 12-15 stretch, not a 9-18 one. Some of that, though is, uh, definitely still the Yankees' fault.
DJ LeMahieu and Anthony Rizzo have still been better than average hitters. Stanton is reportedly heading for a rehab assignment as soon as this weekend. And while Carpenter may be lost for the year, odds are that other mainstays like Torres will bounce back into something like their average form. Isiah Kiner-Falefa hasn’t been a good hitter, but he was never expected to be; he is an intentional sacrifice for defense.
Hicks is barely ever hitting the ball hard now, ranking among the worst everyday players at making good contact, so it’s likely Estevan Florial and eventually trade acquisition Harrison Bader will cut into his playing time.
Should the Yankees worry about … the back of their rotation?
Here’s the first actual, existential worry for the Yankees.
Where catastrophic slumping and injury timing has brought the offense merely to middling, the Yankees' pitching has been bad with their intended roster, with a park-adjusted ERA 10% worse than league average, eighth-worst in MLB since the All-Star break.
We’ll get to the bullpen in a minute, but the rotation is a legitimate concern at this point. Big picture, the issue is this: Despite a charmed run to start the season, the Yankees have only two starting pitchers right now who are trustworthy and healthy — Gerrit Cole and Nestor Cortes. The breakout star Cortes is sailing past his career high in innings, and accumulating the risk of regression or injury that could accompany it.
On top of that, the condensed postseason schedule MLB announced this month means playoff teams will likely need to lean on fourth starters more often than they have in the past, which could make things particularly sticky for the Yankees after they dealt away Jordan Montgomery. Because the other rotation options are creating some anxious evenings in the Bronx.
Trade deadline headliner Frankie Montas, who had a rough go against the Blue Jays on Thursday night, has made only three starts for the Yankees so far. He was coming off a shoulder inflammation scare when they traded for him, so it’s hard to tell whether he’s still searching for his form. It is worrisome that two of his starts for New York are also the starts where he has thrown his excellent, bat-missing splitter the least this season. If he’s struggling to find the feel for that pitch — or worse, if it’s somehow an injury concern to throw it — that could limit his effectiveness.
Luis Severino is on the injured list, but has begun throwing bullpen sessions. His return is crucial to beefing up the Yankees’ playoff rotation.
Jameson Taillon has long been an inconsistent performer and his overall numbers this year, with a subpar strikeout rate and merely average ERA, are probably all you can expect. If he were competing with Montgomery for the last playoff rotation slot, you’d feel far better about the situation.
Domingo German is a below-average major-league pitcher. He’s striking out only 18.5% of batters, and Statcast numbers indicate he may be due to allow even more runs than his 4.45 ERA would indicate. As fallback plans go, the Yankees may have preferred the 26-year-old lefty JP Sears, who performed well in limited action as a rookie, but they included him in the package to the A’s for Montas.
Should the Yankees worry about … uncertainty in the bullpen?
Yes. What frequently counts as the Yankees’ superpower is a little in doubt at the moment. A sudden bout of wildness — and apparently back spasms — have put revelatory closer Clay Holmes on the IL. An injury knocked out Michael King for the year.
That leaves Aroldis Chapman in line to close once again, but he hasn’t necessarily won the spot back with performance. Manager Aaron Boone said deadline addition Scott Effross could also see opportunities. One key cog in this equation is Jonathan Loaisiga. The right-hander was dominant in 2021, but missed two months this season. Since returning, the results look OK, but he’s not getting enough strikeouts to inspire total confidence.
If you want to watch one thing the rest of the season, this may be the most crucial to the Yankees’ October hopes. To really be a daunting out, they need things to click for Holmes, Chapman or, preferably, both.