On the surface you would say this was a good season for the Yankees, they comfortably won the division which wasn’t the prediction of many pundits going into the season. But it ended in a sweep to their new arch-rivals Houston in the ALCS which left a bad taste in the mouth for a lot of fans.
Record: 99-63 (1st AL East)
Preseason Projected Wins: PECOTA 98.7 & Fangraphs 90.6
Playoffs: Reached ALCS
A season of two halves
First half: 58-23
Second half: 41-40
The Yankees came out of the blocks on fire; at the end of June, they were playing .700 baseball. They had the third-best offence in the league, led by the best hitter in baseball at the time Aaron Judge, had two of the best relievers in Michael King and Clay Holmes, and a full rotation (Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, Nestor Cortes, Jordan Montgomery, and Luis Severino) which had been solid and reliable as a group if not remarkable as individuals.
And at this point, you could have said that the Yankees were overachieving but they just looked like a juggernaut team where you didn’t think any player was gonna drop in form. Then the recent curse of the Yankees hit… injuries. Though this time it wasn’t followed by the random parade of Quad A players playing out of their skin as we had seen in previous years.
On the hitting side, up to the end of June, the Yankees had seven players qualified by plate appearances (Judge, DJ LeMahieu, Anthony Rizzo, Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres, Josh Donaldson, Isiah Kiner-Falefa) and post that date they had just four (Judge, Torres, IKF, and Donaldson). They had good cameos from Matt Carpenter and Oswaldo Cabrera but from the outside, that team in the second half looked like it was carried by Judge.
It might surprise quite a lot of you, because it did me, but the Yankees were still the second-best hitting team in the AL (by wRC+) post-June but they were historically not clutch. With runners in scoring positions with two outs, they put up similar offensive numbers to what the Pirates did in those scenarios.
Can one stat describe half a season?
Over 350 plate appearances, the Yankees had a 99 wRC+ compared to 115 wRC+ for all post-June plate appearances. What is more remarkable about this is that Judge had 29 of these PA (with RISP and two outs) and went .647/.793/1.470 which is an otherworldly 478 wRC+. The other Yankees were below the Mendoza Line at .173/.280/.277 for a measly 65 wRC+.
The collapse in clutch performance from hitters not named Judge may have not had the same impact if they didn’t also see a worse performance on the pitching side.
Two of their stalwart starters from the first half managed less than six starts in pinstripes with Severino going down injured and Montgomery being inexplicably traded to the Cardinals for an injured Harrison Bader (more on this later). They were replaced by Domingo German who pitched well and the newly-acquired Frankie Montas who did not. This, combined with a regression from Taillon back to a league-average starter, meant that the Yankees went from having the best AL starters by fWAR (pre-July) to the eighth best (post-June), nestled right next to the Baltimore Orioles.
It is also worth noting that Cole and Cortes were both good across the entirety of the season.
The relievers also cooled off. They only got 9⅓ more innings from King before injury hit, and Holmes had a much poorer half going from a 0.49 ERA to 5.33 ERA. The Yankees spent most of the second half of the season trying to work out who their high-leverage guys were – eight different guys got saves – with Wandy Peralta seemingly being their guy come the postseason.
They had also settled on deadline acquisitions Scott Effross and Lou Trivino being a part of it, as well as rookie Ron Marinaccio. These three all had great success in September but two of them didn’t even make the postseason rosters due to injuries.
During all of this second-half slump, there was the frenzy of Judge’s AL HR record chase. I’m still not certain if this was a welcome or unwelcome distraction for Yankees fans but it happened and from the perspective of an outside fan it went on forever.
The “outrage” at teams pitching around the best hitter in baseball when he had no lineup protection behind him was farcical not just because it was the sensible thing for the opposition to do, but for the fact that Judge was often getting walked in full counts and not four straight balls. So, the teams were challenging him and not giving him the easy stuff that Albert Pujols was getting. He eventually made it and was rightly lauded for his achievement but here’s hoping we never hear from Roger Maris Jr. again.
The Yankees had easily built enough of a cushion to win the division let alone make the playoffs but if it wasn’t for the endless parade of Judge and Maris Jr. a few more fans, pundits and even myself may have started to question how good this team actually was going into the playoffs. Or at least what version of the Yankees might we get.
In the ALDS, the Yankees went up against the slap-hitting Guardians and the series went as one might have expected. The Yankees won 3-2 with very solid pitching from Cortes and Cole in four out of the five games. Although they struck out a lot, they outslugged the Cleveland team and it was only down to the dodgy bullpen costing them Games two and three that it went the full five.
The only part that was shocking was the Yankees outfielder who was smashing bombs and spraying the ball all over the place was not Judge but Harrison Bader. Bader had managed just 49 plate appearances for the Yankees after coming over in the trade while injured. In those games, he had zero home runs, but in the ALDS he hit three in just 15 plate appearances.
I was ready to continually lambast his trade as an awful one for the Yankees but his postseason performances have given me some reason to pause on that at least for now.
The win earned New York the delight of an ALCS against the Houston Astros, and the Yankees needed a lot to go right for them to push the Astros… but it didn’t. They didn’t get good starts from Cole, Cortes or the returning Severino, which left them requiring runs off the lauded Astros bullpen and it just didn’t happen.
The 4-0 sweep and the Yankees’ inability to score off the Astros bullpen made this series seem more one-sided than it actually was. This series was won and lost on the starting pitching and the Yankees didn’t get the best out of their studs.
Estimated 2022 Payroll: $249M
Estimated 2023 Payroll: $206M
Looking purely at the current squads (at the time of writing) my models have the Yankees as the ninth-best team in the league in tier two (ranks 7-11) teams. We expect the Yankees to add to the squad before the season starts which will move them up as some teams above them won’t spend much.
I don’t think the Yankees have any glaringly bad positions but a few which are league average that they would want to improve on. The current weak spots for me are right field, third base and in the bullpen, which could extend to the rest of the outfield and maybe shortstop if you are pushing to be the best in almost every position.
The thing is there isn’t a standout third baseman available; Justin Turner and Brandon Drury are probably not improvements on Josh Donaldson. And it’s the same on the reliever side, given that Edwin Diaz has gone straight back to the other side of New York. Craig Kimbrel and Kenley Jansen are over the hill, and Aroldis Chapman is definitely not coming back given how it ended there.
The obvious elephant in the room here is the Aaron Judge-shaped hole in right field. The Yankees offered him a team-friendly contract at the start of the season and Judge gambled on himself, and boy did that work out for him. The Yankees should throw a massive wad of cash at him to get him back as he solves their issues best.
After that, it goes down to how much money the Steinbrenner’s are willing to put into payroll and if it’s not much more, I’d try to pick up Brandon Nimmo and if it’s a lot, you gotta go after Carlos Correa. Either of these will be a significant improvement on what’s there even though some of what is there are good prospects.
The Yankees also potentially have to think about the optics of their trades this offseason, they need to sign Judge first otherwise any other large signing done before Judge will be seen as something that is a barrier to Judge coming back to some fans and media companies who will get vocal about it.
Bad offseason – No Judge or marque shortstop signed
Ok offseason – Judge or Correa
Good offseason – Judge & Nimmo
Best offseason – Judge & Correa
Featured photo of Aaron Judge by Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images
Russell is Bat Flips and Nerds’ resident analytical genius, and arguably Europe’s finest sabermetrician. If you’re not following Russell on Twitter @REassom then you’re doing baseball wrong.