The 2019 season was a crazy year for the New York Yankees. Most teams that face the multitude of injuries the 2019 Yankees faced would have crumbled under the pressure. Not the Bronx Bombers of last year though. They had a handful of players fill-in that had phenomenal seasons. Some of those players, like Cameron Maybin, and Austin Romine went on to sign with other teams. Some of them stayed, like Gio Urshela, and won the starting role for the foreseeable future. I want to take a look at some of the players who performed well last year and were asked to do the same this year but with different (and worse) results.
This one hurts because I wrote an article early in the offseason I was on the Mike Tauchman bandwagon. I was certain that he was the perfect injury replacement should one of the starting outfielders go down. I even had him ahead of Clint Fraizer on my depth chart. Luckily for the Yankees, the fact that I was so wrong about the Tauchman vs. Fraizer debate gave us the new and improved 2020 Clint Frazier.
As for Tauchman, he’s seen drop-offs in two big categories; defense and power. Let’s start with the defense. Tauchman was amazing wherever he played in 2019. He put up 16 defense runs saved last year while seeing most of his time (59 of 87 games) in leftfield. Check out some of his 2019 highlights here. In 2020, his current DRS sits a -1. That’s a hell of a regression from one season to the next. He’s playing more right field this year but his DRS as a right fielder is only -2 so you can’t argue that playing out of position is hurting him on defense because his DRS in right field in 2019 was 4. His DRS as a left-fielder this year is 1 compared to 12 in 2019. An 11-point negative swing in left field combined with his -2 DRS in right field and 0 DRS in center field all add up to a slightly below average fielder in terms of DRS.
What about on offense though? Surprisingly, Tauchman’s statistics at the plate are relatively the same. He’s striking out a hair more this year (24% in 2019 vs 24.5% in 2020) and actually walking more this year (11.5% in 2019 vs 12.8% in 2020). The difference comes when he puts the ball in play. He is currently sitting on a big goose egg for home runs and his slugging percentage is an atrocious .310. Tauchman didn’t have “blow you away” exit velo last year but it’s still down from 88.7 mph to 85.6 mph this year. His launch angle is also down from 11.3 degrees in 2019 to 7.4 degrees in 2020. That right there is a recipe for a ton of groundballs and very little power. Tauchman is really fast so he can still leg out some those groundballs for infield singles but he will never see a slugging percentage over .400 with exit velocity and launch angles that we have seen from him this year.
Another guy that I was hyping up before the season. Mike Ford looks the part of a player that does one thing. That thing is hit bombs. In 2020, he isn’t doing that. He’s only got two home runs so far and with a lot of the injured players coming back this week, his playing time is in serious doubt. He’s about halfway to the number of plate appearances he had last year and there is not enough time to raise his triple slash of .135/.226/.270 to anything respectable.
So where did his power go? For starters, he’s hitting a lot more groundballs this year and as a result fewer fly balls. You can’t hit home runs unless you hit fly balls and Ford’s fly ball percentage is down from 33% to 16.9%. Ford is also striking out more (17.2% in 2019 vs 19.1% in 2020) and walking less (10.4% in 2019 vs 8.3% in 2020). The strikeout and walk rates don’t explain why Ford isn’t hitting for power though. Looking at his chase rates, they have regressed from his 2019 statistics but not much. His zone swing percentage is down from 61.9% in 2019 to 57.1% this year and his zone contact percentage was 85.3% in 2019 but has dropped done to 82.8% so far this season.
Looking closer at the type of contact he’s making, you find some data that supports the reason for all the groundballs. Ford’s launch angle is down from 15.6 degrees to 8.4 degrees. He’s suffering the same pain that Tauchman is dealing with but the difference is that Ford is a huge negative on defense and not a positive contributor in any other measurable aspect of the game. His job to hit like this. When Ford isn’t hitting, he kills the team.
Finally, we have a player that, for some reason, I remember playing better than his stat line said he performed. Thairo Estrada played 35 games last year but had a sub .300 OBP? I know he doesn’t walk but that still surprised me. All told, he finished 2019 with a .732 OPS while filling in around the infield and that’s not bad for a fill-in. He chipped in a few big homeruns last year and four stolen bases on top of that. You really couldn’t ask for more out of a guy no one thought would factor into the plans of the big league club in 2019.
There were some red flags though. To start, Estrada is allergic to walking. He posted a walk rate of 4.4% last year and that is down to 2% this year. There have been a few at-bats where he was swung at pitches a foot outside the zone and other pitches that were almost above his eyes. It’s almost like he was taking his batting eye from Gary Sanchez. Another aspect of his game I was worried about was his strikeout rate. Most players with a 21.7% strikeout rate bring power and OBP with it to offset some of the negatives strikeouts bring. Estrada doesn’t do that so when the BABIP gods aren’t kind to him, it will look pretty terrible. This year, his strikeout is up to 37.3% and that’s not acceptable no matter what player produces that rate.
If there is any silver lining in Estrada’s 2020, it’s that his defense has been better at shortstop this year. He was a -2 DRS player at shortstop last year but is right a 0 this year, making him a neutral value at best. Now that Gleyber Torres is back, and the Yankees refuse to give up on running Tyler Wade out there every day, Estrada should take some time to figure out a way to improve his batting eye. Otherwise, I don’t think he has a spot on this team given his defensive skillset.
So there you have it. We saw the best-case scenario with the replacement players last year and it seems we are seeing the pendulum swing the other way this year. At least we have seen a new beast in Frazier in 2020 and Gio was still doing Gio things before going down with an injury earlier this month. If the Yankees are going to have all these players that could go down with injuries at a given moment, they need the talent of the depth to show up. After all, not every player can be Luke Voit and just rub some dirt on it, suck it up, and play for the boys.