Opinion: It’s too soon for the sigh of relief, but the Yankees can only go up from here
Around August of 2020, I wrote a piece titled, “Is this rock bottom?” Injuries abounded. COVID-19 cases cancelled games. The Tampa Bay Rays were unbeatable and the Yanks fell out of first place in the American League East. The season was short, and was already more than halfway over. Postseason predictions were already cast. At the time, it felt as though the only way to go was up, but at the same time, it felt hopeless (what with so many people injured). While the Yanks didn’t even make it to the 2020 ALCS, they still managed to find themselves on a winning streak shortly after that dark period in August of 2020, and their postseason standing was secured after all.
At the time, I remember feeling and talking about how that period was one of my darkest as a Yankees fan. However, the past two or so weeks have felt like deja vu -- like August 2020 all over again. Yes, “it’s still early” and the postseason is months away. But winning April games can be the difference between a first-place finish and a trip to the AL Wild Card game.
While the last few games appear encouraging, it seems too soon to tell… this sums it up:
Yes, the two-HR game from Giancarlo Stanton was a sign of life. Domingo German pitching out of trouble on Thursday night was hopeful. Rougned Odor potentially brings more than just “small ball” to the team and contributes something different than power hitters do:
Are the @Yankees too professional? Maybe @RougnedOdor gives them the swag they need outwardly. He brings a dynamic that combined with the other talent already on the roster could make them lethal, even if statistically he doesn’t play well— Erik Kratz (@ErikKratz31) April 24, 2021
But what do the Yankees need to do so that they don’t go back to last place (or, better yet, find their way back to first place)? Spoiler alert: the answer is NOT, “hit more home runs.” Of course, everyone wants to hit home runs. But the Yankees’ “home run or bust” problem is not a new problem (I covered it all the way back in the 2018 offseason). Some of the possible answers are…
For the love of George Steinbrenner, solve the RISP problem
Even Forbes, a business magazine, published a report on the Yankees’ “situational hitting woes.” As of April 16th, the Yanks were 19-for-83 (22.89 percent success rate) with RISP on the 2021 season. DJ LeMahieu, who is known for his situational hitting, hit into double play after double play. If Thursday’s and Friday’s victories are any indication, it will get better (certainly Aaron Boone’s pressers lead us to believe that they will be… insert eye-roll emoji here), but it has to BE better on a consistent basis.
Starting pitchers who aren’t named Gerrit Cole need to record solid outings
Again, German as well as Jameson Taillon have made good starts in the past week -- but that’s just this week. Not to mention, where’s Deivi Garcia? Boone announced he’ll be “possibly” starting on Monday, but no guarantee. Is Corey Kluber the answer to the rotation gaps that the Front Office hoped he’d be? With a 5.40 ERA and 14 recorded strikeouts so far, it doesn’t look that way yet. Not what you want in your No. 2 starter. The rotation needs to be solid but also needs consistency -- and anyone who follows the Yankees closely knew that this lack of consistency would be a problem.
Don’t burn out the bullpen
Solving the aforementioned starting pitcher problem will lead to solving the problem of minimizing bullpen usage -- when starting pitchers other than Cole consistently stay in the game longer. Run support is also a key factor in minimizing bullpen usage. Seeing Aroldis Chapman in Tuesday night’s game against the Braves, in which the Braves played poorly enough to hand the game to the slumping Yankees, is definitely not what you want. The Braves were not hitting, but the Yankees were afraid that they could still lose the lead. A longer outing from Taillon, as well as more run support, could have prevented Chapman from needing to enter the game.
Bring back clubhouse spirit
While this observation is purely emotional rather than statistical, the “Savages in the Box” version of Boone seems nowhere to be seen. Brett Gardner finally banged his bat a bit this season. The Didi Gregorius post-game tweet recap days seem much further away than 2019. And I’m not the only one who notices it (the implication here, of course, is that the Yankees “having fun” is an anomaly right now):
THE YANKEES ARE HAVING FUN?! pic.twitter.com/Ojyyz7JPht— Talkin' Yanks (@TalkinYanks) April 23, 2021
But one thing I learned from August 2020 was that this Yankees team seemingly thrives on adversity and recognizing that the only way to go is, in fact, up. Many of the faces, both roster-wise and coaching staff-wise are the same, so an “apples-to-apples” comparison can be made. They have to reach rock bottom so that they can propel themselves to the top. And the recent stretch of adversity could be just the answer.