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An optimist’s take on the Yankees slow start

Thirteen games into the season and the Yankees have looked…not good.

After a promising first couple of wins in Toronto, the Yankees have dropped 7 of their next 11 games to fall to a 6-7 record on the year. They’ve been plagued by injuries, underperformance, questionable bullpen management, and inexperience throughout the early rough patch. Fans are rightfully restless with the team’s slow start.

After overachieving in 2017 and nearly reaching the World Series, and then acquiring reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton as well as pieces like Neil Walker and Brandon Drury, the mentality has returned to championship or bust in The Bronx. Starting the year this poorly hardly inspires confidence, especially with a rookie manager in Aaron Boone at the helm.

Depth has disappeared rapidly in the outfield, with quick injuries to starting CF Aaron Hicks (who has since returned) as well as the hated-but-still-useful Jacoby Ellsbury. Highly touted prospect Clint Frazier has been battling concussion symptoms since early in spring training, and even Billy McKinney got injured after crashing into a wall in just his second MLB game.

New addition Brandon Drury, who had looked solid in the opening games of the season, appears to be out indefinitely with migraines that impair his vision. Perhaps most disappointingly, 1B Greg Bird looks set to miss the first two months of the season after being sidelined by another surgery on the ankle that has bedeviled him since last year.

Tyler Wade and Miguel Andujar have largely disappointed and showed their inexperience at the plate in the early going. Wade, who struggled mightily in his first season last year, had an impressive spring training that earned him an Opening Day roster spot. Many fans and front office executives expressed optimism that regular playing time would lead to a breakout year for the young utility player.

However, he has thus far hit an ugly .097/.176/.161 (wRC+ -6), and has looked largely overmatched at the plate. Andujar, who was considered a lock for the starting 3B job before the Drury trade, has likewise struggled to the tune of a .107/.133/.107 (wRC+ -41) line. Both have chased pitches out of the zone at a high rate, contributing to abysmal hard contact rates of below 20%.

An even larger driver of the Yankees offensive struggles has been the slumps of  Stanton and Gary Sanchez. While Stanton has actually been rather productive, hitting .241/.328/.500 (wRC+ 133) thus far, his very visible strikeout struggles have not endeared him to fans thus far. His biggest issue has been missing hittable pitches, as he’s making contact on pitches in the strike zone just 70.4% of the times he swings versus a career average of 81.4%. The eye test confirms this, as especially during the home stand he seemed to be swinging through a number of fastballs and hanging breaking balls that he normally crushes.

Gary’s slow start has been even more pronounced. Though his defense looks much improved, his .133/.152/.400 (wRC+ 46) line is a far cry from the elite offensive number we have come to expect. Unlike Stanton, who is flat out whiffing, Gary is actually making contact on an even higher percent of pitches in the zone than usual (93.2% versus career average 83.9%).

However, his timing seems to be slightly off, resulting in a high percentage of pop ups and weak grounders. His 27.8% infield fly ball rate and 32.4% hard contact are driving his unsustainably low .088 BABIP, which is dragging down both his on-base and power numbers. Both of these guys seem to be just off in their mechanics, and it’s causing them to make easy outs where they’d usually be demolishing the ball.

Finally, the bullpen has been a far cry from the juggernaut that was anticipated. After a miserable first few games, they’ve stabilized to a respectable collective 4.47 ERA. While Jonathan Holder was truly overmatched in his three appearances, the rest of the pen simply seems to be finding their feet in the early days of the season.

Each pitcher has maintained their dynamite strikeout stuff, leading to a staff K/9 of 12.92. While long term concerns remain about Betances’ inability to hold runners on and Kahnle’s reduced velocity, the underlying numbers suggest this unit should return to it’s usual elite ways soon (3.05 FIP).

All of this is to say that many, many things have gone wrong in the first thirteen games…and the Yankees are still 6-7. Despite the inexplicable boos raining down at the stadium, Stanton will be just fine in time, as will Sanchez. Nothing in their performances thus far suggests anything besides early season slumps at the plate. Likewise, the bullpen seems to be finding their feet at this early stage in the season.

Few if any of their player look set for a regression; it simply seems like a case of the proverbial small sample size woes. And as injured stars start returning to this Yankee lineup, it will both get deeper and relieve some of the pressure currently resting on the shoulders of the youngsters.

The 2009 Yankees dropped their 12th game of the season 22-4 at home to the Indians to fall to a 6-6 record. They were below .500 as late as May 13, with a win that began a nine-game winning streak that brought them from 15-17 to 24-17. On November 4 of that year, they raised a World Series trophy on the heels of a 103-59 campaign.

With a young team and a rookie manager, there will inevitably be more growing pains and rough patches with this team. Aaron Boone is still learning as he goes, and the Yankees reliance on youth means there will be countless frustrations along the way.

At these early stages, it is important to maintain perspective and remember that we can’t expect them to win every single game. Hopefully, we’ll look back in November and laugh that we were ever worried in the first place.

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