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Making sense of early season overreactions

By now, you’d think we as Yankee fans would have learned how to handle a slow start to the year. If recent history is any guide, the first 10 games of the season have little or no bearing on how successful the team will be in the end.

The Yankees only time as AL East champions in the past five years came after they started 5-5 in 2019. Last year, they failed to win the division or advance past the ALDS despite starting 8-2 in a shortened season. In 2009, they were under .500 after 33 games, and we all know how that year ended. I promise, this team is not doomed because they lost two of the opening three series of the year.

But, of course, it is disappointing when a team that has underachieved in recent seasons gets off to another lackluster start in 2021. The expectation has been World Series or bust for several years running, and each premature exit in the playoffs becomes more and more frustrating, building anticipation for the coming season.

So I’m not at all shocked to see the hot takes flying again after dropping two out of three at the Trop and generally looking average through nine games. Some claims have gotten more attention and gathered more steam than others, so I thought I’d work through some of the more interesting overreactions I’ve seen in the opening weeks of the season.

The Yankees defense is terrible, and Gleyber is a main culprit

From 2017 to 2020, the Yankees rank roughly in the middle of the pack by DRS (Defensive Runs Saved), a seemingly encouraging sign. But most of the positive defensive metrics have evaporated since 2018. Across 2019 and 2020, the Yankees were 24th in the league with -25 DRS. For reference, the Dodgers and Astros were in first and second at 129 and 107 DRS respectively.

Statcast paints an even more dire picture, with the Yankees coming in at 29th in OAA (Outs Above Average) from 2019 through 2020. They were an appalling 43 outs below average, just one better than the last placed Orioles. The Astros, by contrast, were 46 outs above average over the same two year spell, topping the league. While key errors and misplays are more visibly appalling, the Yankees have neglected their defense for several years now to the point where it is among the worst in the league.

Unfortunately, Gleyber does seem to be a big part of the problem as well. Across 2019 and 2020, Gleyber has posted -12 DRS in about 1000 innings at SS, and -11 DRS in 550 innings at 2B. That brings his total to -23 DRS across the past two years, worst on the Yankees and among the worst in baseball. Voit is also a significant liability in the field, racking up -17 DRS in 1084 innings at 1B.

Some people are skeptical of advanced defensive metrics, but if they agree across sources in a multi-season sample size, that’s generally a sign that they can be trusted. And Statcast also hates both Gleyber and Voit defensively, at -13 OAA apiece over the past two seasons, both among the worst in the league. Just for “fun”, we can even throw in UZR/150 (Ultimate Zone Rating/150 innings), another commonly used Fangraphs defensive metric. With -11.7 UZR/150 at second and -8.9 UZR/150 at shortstop, this also suggests Gleyber is the worst defender on the team.

This could be a huge problem for the team since Gleyber was once the #1 prospect in baseball in part because he was thought to be a complete player. While he has time to figure it out, the Yankees need him to be at least an average defender to reach his full potential and give them the value they need up the middle. But even if Gleyber does improve, the team has systemic problems on defense that areย  worrisome moving forward. This could and should be an area Cashman looks to shore up via the trade market midseason.

It’s time for Domingo German to go

This one is pretty simple. German is a domestic abuser. Players such as Zack Britton have already made comments that indicate some of his teammates may be rightly uncomfortable having him return to the team. And there is no “baseball argument” to keep him around, as some people argue. He’s just not that good.

Some people love to talk about his 18 wins in 2019. They seem to conveniently forget the part where they came with a 4.03 ERA and even worse peripherals. His 4.51 xERA, 4.72 FIP, and 4.22 xFIP were average at best, and Statcast shows he was quite fortunate to escape with an ERA hovering around four. He allowed some of the hardest contact among starters in the league, and was simply not so impressive that he had to be brought back for a second chance.

Now he’s more than a full year removed from his last full time action, and it’s showed in his first two starts. He’s a backend rotation arm at best, and a fringe bullpen guy at worst. Beyond that, the Yankees have a terrific prospect in Deivi Garcia who will almost certainly exceed German’s on field output, and also is not a complete scumbag. Normally I berate people for using small sample sizes. This time, I’ll make an exception. Get this guy off the team.

Once again, the team can’t hit with RISP

I’m not going to get into any arguments over whether or not an athlete can be clutch. I’ve played the sport, and I think it’s a real thing, but probably is marginal and doesn’t dictate that much about performance in key spots. Let’s not litigate that here.

No matter what you believe about clutch, it is simply not true that the Yankees fail to get hits in key spots. This is one of the longest running beliefs among fans that is not grounded in actual fact. From 2017 through 2020, the Yankees had the 7th highest average and 3rd highest wRC+ with RISP. For people that like counting stats, they had the 3rd most RBIs and the most home runs in those situations.

Similarly, in “high leverage” situations or those in which the game is most likely to be on the line (think RISP, 2 outs, tie game), the Yankees have the tied-4th highest average and 3rd highest wRC+ over the past four years. Their strikeout rate in these situations? Just 21.8%, 7th lowest in baseball. Let’s retire the tired narrative that the Yankees are somehow uniquely bad at hitting with men on base or in key spots.

It is no doubt frustrating when the team fails to produce in key moments, but the Yankees are no worse and truthfully better than most of the league in “clutch” situations. The explanation is simple: they are one of the best offensive teams in the league, and that shines through over time with RISP and in high leverage situations.

The pitching staff will be better in 2021 than in the past four years

The jury is still very much out on this one. It’s impossible to come to any conclusions after just nine games this year. But the early signs are certainly encouraging for the pitching staff this year. Please take all of this with a grain of salt, especially the traditional statistics which are inherently noisy in such a small sample size.

To start with the simple stuff, the team’s ERA of 2.93 ranks 5th in baseball. They have racked up 11.82 K/9 and 2.06 BB/9, both best in league. Though their HR/9 numbers are around the middle of the pack, the ultimate result is a FIP of 3.27, 3rd best in the league.

They are also limiting hard contact better than any staff in baseball, pitching to a .275 xwOBA, tops in the league. The .203 xBA again laps the field, coming in well ahead of the second best White Sox. Just 37.4% of balls put in play against them have been “hard hit” (exit velo >95 MPH).

While by no means determinative, all of this should be encouraging for fans. In particular, the early emergence of Jonathan Loaisiga and Luis Cessa as legitimate bullpen weapons would be huge for the team if they can sustain their performance throughout the season.

From 2019 through 2020, the Yankees ranked just 11th in ERA, 15th in FIP, and hovered at the fringes of the top 10 in xERA. If their patchwork of starters and bullpen arms can build on a strong start, they will be poised to play a key role in overcoming recent playoff woes.

Conclusion

Most people who make determinative statements after just 10 games are doomed to look back with regret on their reactionary takes. However, examining evidence from recent seasons, there is real reason to be concerned about the Yankees continued struggles on defense to start the year. Targeting a quality defensive utility infielder should be a priority for the team to shore up significant weaknesses at both shortstop and first base moving forward.

But there is no doubt in my mind that the Yankees offense will be perfectly fine in the long run. The team is easily one of the most talented in the league at the plate, and that will certainly shine through over the course of the 162 game regular season and, with any luck, into the postseason as well. And if the rotation and bullpen can continue to improve over the course of the year, they have a chance to make a real leap and help the team claim its first AL pennant in over a decade.