Yankees’ usual strength has become an alarming problem: Sherman

What are the Yankees good at? They are good when Gerrit Cole starts. They are good in the bullpen. And they are good at … OK, let’s get back to that in a bit. Because usually we would include

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What are the Yankees good at?

They are good when Gerrit Cole starts. They are good in the bullpen. And they are good at …

OK, let’s get back to that in a bit. Because usually we would include power.

For now, maybe the question should be are the Yankees good?

Of course they are, right? They haven’t had a losing season since 1993 and a lot of years since have had stretches like this current 5-7 opening when it looked like the end could be near. But the Yanks have always figured it out to — at minimum — be factors well into September and usually make the postseason.

Besides, this is just two weeks. Just a dozen games. A mere 7.4 percent of a season.

But what if this is greater than 7.4 percent? What if we look at those 60 games last year, when the Yankees went 33-27 and made the playoffs. That was a postseason in which eight teams in each league made it. This year it is back to five. So winning the division becomes more pressing.

Also, that 33-27 was built on going 16-4 against Baltimore and Boston (owners of the fourth-and-sixth-worst records in MLB) and 17-23 otherwise. It was about being 8-4 when Cole started and 25-23 otherwise. This year — again, small sample size — the Yanks are 2-1 against the Orioles and 3-6 against the Blue Jays and Rays. They are 2-1 when Cole starts and 3-6 when he does not.

Tampa Bay arrives in The Bronx this weekend, 13-5 against the Yanks the last two years, including a five-game elimination in the Division Series last year. No foe reduces the Yanks to a caricature of the bully as do the Rays, who stand up to them like Evander Holyfield to Mike Tyson; frustrating and annoying the big-market behemoth. Namely because they do so much to unplug the Yankee offense.

The Yankees’ personality — their fortitude and their confidence — is tied to their power bats. When those bats play, the Yankees play best. When they don’t, the Yanks seem ordinary — or worse. What they don’t do well — namely field or offer a strong rotation behind Cole — is exposed when the Yanks do not compensate with multi-run homers, in particular.

The 2021 Yanks are 1-6 when they score four or fewer runs — the win came in a Cole start backed by two Kyle Higashioka homers. In four of the six losses, they failed to hit a homer.  

A sleep-walking offensive opening to this season followed a somnolent spring training that was dismissed because it was spring and these are the Yankees.

But what if these are the Yankees? For the early-season trends are alarming. After so much talk about the Yankees being too homer reliant the last few years, the glaring problem is they are not hitting the ball in the air enough. The team is constituted in a certain way and being 23rd in slugging percentage is not it. Sorry for the second boxing reference, but you wouldn’t ask George Foreman to stick and move. He was in the ring to knock you out. The Yanks have basically the same dimensionality on offense. They have to get the ball over the fence.

Instead, the 2021 Yanks have a 48-percent groundball rate. That is the fourth-highest mark in the majors. In the 20 years FanGraphs has charted this stat, 2021 is the Yankees’ highest percentage of grounders and second-lowest flyball rate (34.1). In 2019 when they hit the second-most homers (306) in MLB history — and won 103 games and their only division title since 2012 — the Yankees’ groundball rate was 41.7 and their flyball rate 37.2.

Giancarlo Stanton’s groundball rate is higher than ever.
Charles Wenzelberg/NY Post

Is this about MLB’s deadening of the ball? Is it about team’s going to school on the Yankees? The whole sport has moved away from throwing fastballs as often. And this is the fourth straight year the Yanks have seen fewer fastballs, down to 46.9 percent (fourth lowest in MLB). The fastball the Yanks are seeing more than any other team is a cutter, plus plenty of sliders and curves. And, so far, the tactics are leading to a ground game Saquon Barkley would admire, particularly from Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu and Giancarlo Stanton. That trio has hit into seven of the Yankees’ AL-leading 15 double plays.

LeMahieu has always hit the ball on the ground a lot, but with such force that it resulted in plenty of hits. But what if some of his exit velocity diminishes or defensive shifts are more precise against him? Judge and Stanton hit the ball hard, so when it is on the ground the chance for double plays rises. But all three are hitting it on the ground at a higher rate than ever, notably Judge and Stanton.

So let’s go back to that original question: What are the Yankees good at? Yep, when Cole starts — thus, any injury to him would be devastating. Their relief is good, better perhaps when Zack Britton returns, but worse if the starters do not begin compiling more innings to avoid pen overexposure and wear and tear.

Normally, next would come power bats. So far, that has not been true. And when you take the Bombers out of The Bronx, you are taking the identity away from this team. Are you also taking away the Yankees’ chances to be good?

This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Joel Sherman

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