Friday night, the New York Yankees lost their fourth game in a row, this one a rain-shortened 6 1/2-inning loss to the rebuilding White Sox at Yankee Stadium (CWS 9, NYY 6). The Yankees have lost eight of their first 13 games for only the third time this century (2005, 2016, 2019). They’ll look to right the ship Saturday afternoon (stream the game regionally via fuboTV — try for free).
For the Yankees, the story of the season thus far has been injuries. They have 11 players on the injured list — it was 12 before CC Sabathia was activated Saturday morning — the most in baseball. The Yankees are missing five starting position players and several important pitchers. Here is the injury list:
, and following the loss to the White Sox, . Severino recently suffered a setback as well. Stanton, Sanchez, and maybe Tulowitzki could return sometime in April. Everyone else is out more long-term.
“It’s our reality right now. The bottom line is we feel like — unlike any other team, maybe — we are equipped to be able to still have success through this,” manager Aaron Boone said Friday. “That’s our expectations. It is next guy up. … Even though we’re in a little bit of a storm right now and have some adversity with these injuries, the expectation doesn’t change because the guys we still have in that room are capable of getting it done. That’s our focus.”
Friday’s loss was New York’s sixth in the last nine games — the Yankees swept three games from the Orioles last weekend and haven’t done much else recently — and the game showed the Yankees have problems that run deeper than their injuries. Several healthy core players are not performing as expected. Let’s dig through the things going wrong for the 2019 Yankees on the field.
The ‘Super Bullpen’ isn’t so super
On paper, the Yankees did not just have the best bullpen in baseball coming into the season, they had maybe the best bullpen in baseball history. Last year’s bullpen was the second best ever by WAR, and this offseason the Yankees added Adam Ottavino and a full season of Zack Britton to their core bullpen group (they did lose David Robertson to free agency). It was not crazy to think this year’s relief crew would be better than last year’s.
Instead, 13 games into the new season, the bullpen has not been the overwhelming strength the Yankees and pretty much everyone else expected. In fact, it’s been more of a liability. Here are the team’s bullpen rankings in various categories going into Saturday’s action:
- ERA: 4.34 (15th)
- WHIP: 1.43 (17th)
- Strikeout rate: 10.0 K/9 (9th)
- Win probability added: minus-1.22 (27th)
- Shutdowns: 10 (21st)
- Meltdowns: 13 (28th)
(Shutdowns are relief appearances that increase win probability at least six percent. Meltdowns are the opposite. They are relief appearances that decrease win probability at least six percent.)
According to YES Network researcher James Smyth, the Yankees have already lost seven games this season in which they held a lead. That includes two seventh-inning blown leads against the Astros earlier this week. Last season the Yankees did not suffer their seventh blown lead loss until June 13th, in their 64th game. Those blown leads aren’t all on the bullpen, but yikes.
Ottavino has been nails while replacing Betances as Boone’s high-leverage reliever of choice (one run and 11 strikeouts in seven innings), and long man Luis Cessa has been solid in low-leverage mop-up duty, otherwise the core Yankees relievers have all had some issues early this season. A partial list:
- Aroldis Chapman‘s fastball velocity is at its lowest point in his career and he has a 10.8 H/9.
- Zack Britton has more baserunners allowed (12) than swings and misses (10), which seems impossible.
- Chad Green has allowed seven runs in 5 1/3 innings and has struck out only one of the last 21 batters he’s faced.
- Tommy Kahnle has not fully regained his 2017 velocity and has walked four in four innings.
Betances is not coming back to save the day anytime soon, and, really, no one player can fix a collectively struggling bullpen. For the Yankees to dig themselves out of this early season hole, they need Britton and Green to turn things around, Ottavino to stay razor sharp, and a young arm or two to come up from minors and give the team a shot in the arm. New York’s vaunted bullpen has been a real weakness 13 games into 2019.
Paxton and especially Happ have struggled
Prized offseason pickup James Paxton is sitting on a 6.00 ERA through three starts and 15 innings. He’s had one good start, one OK start, and one bad start. J.A. Happ has an 8.76 ERA and three bad starts in three tries to his name. That includes allowing six runs in four innings plus two batters against the White Sox on Friday.
Happ, who pitched to a 2.69 ERA in 11 starts with the Yankees after coming over in a trade deadline deal with the Blue Jays last year, has yet to complete even five innings in any of his three starts this season, and his opponents have been the Orioles (twice) and White Sox. He’s been getting beat up by rebuilding teams. The underlying Statcast numbers suggest this isn’t bad luck either. Happ’s exit velocity and launch angle allowed point to bad results:
- Expected batting average: .320 (ninth percentile)
- Expected slugging percentage: .610 (ninth percentile)
- Expected weighted on-base average: .417 (11th percentile)
Masahiro Tanaka has been excellent in all three starts this year. He has a 1.47 ERA in 18 1/3 innings. Yankees starters other than Tanaka have a 5.36 ERA and are averaging under 4 2/3 innings per start. Happ is the primary culprit, but Paxton has been OK at best and fill-in fifth starter Jonathan Loaisiga managed to throw only seven total innings in his two starts.
Getting Sabathia back Saturday should help — he has a 3.67 ERA the last two seasons and is replacing the largely overmatched Loaisiga — but, similar to the bullpen, the Yankees need their current players to perform better. Happ is healthy and Paxton is healthy; injuries are not an excuse for those two. They were brought in to solidify the rotation — Paxton was brought in to be a co-ace alongside Severino, really — and have done anything but.
Bird is blowing another opportunity
The Hicks injury opened the door for Greg Bird to make the Opening Day roster. He was likely ticketed for Triple-A coming out of spring training, but then Hicks went down, forcing Stanton to play the outfield and freeing up DH at-bats for Bird. The results have not been good.
On Friday night Bird went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts and was booed after each at-bat. It’s not hard to understand why fans are unhappy with him. The Yankees love Bird and have given him opportunity after opportunity, yet over the last three seasons he’s authored a .196/.290/.391 batting line in 518 plate appearances around various injuries. That’s terrible for a light-hitting defense-first middle infielder. It is untenable for a bat-only first baseman.
The Yankees were very short on left-handed lineup punch coming into 2019. Gregorius is hurt and Brett Gardner doesn’t contribute much offensively these days, so Hicks, a switch-hitter, was far and away the team’s best threat from the left side of the plate. Bird’s lefty swing is seemingly tailor-made for Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch. Instead, he is striking out a ton (40.5 percent of his plate appearances) and making very poor contact when he does get the bat on the ball.
- Average exit velocity: 85.8 mph (21st percentile)
- Hard-hit rate: 31.3 percent (30th percentile)
- Expected batting average: .192 (16th percentile)
- Expected slugging percentage: .334 (25th percentile)
- Expected weighted on-base average: .298 (33rd percentile)
The injuries have thinned New York’s lineup considerably, so even though he has not played well at all this season, Bird has been a staple in the middle of the order, usually hitting fifth. He’s done nothing to justify a lineup spot that prominent in three years now, but injuries are forcing the team’s hand. Of all the injury replacements in the lineup, Bird is the one with the best chance to have an impact, and he’s instead fallen flat again.
They’ve played very sloppy baseball
It can be difficult to quantify something as vague as “sloppy” play, but you know it when you see it. Consider Gleyber Torres on this DJ LeMahieu two-run single Friday night. For some reason Torres froze between second and third bases rather than continue to third to force the White Sox to make the perfect set of relay throws for the inning-ending out.
The Yankees have made 12 errors this season, fourth most in baseball, and they’ve made seven outs on the bases, sixth most in baseball. They rank 24th in defensive efficiency (68.6 percent) and 20th in baserunning (minus-1.4 runs). Their margin for error has been reduced by injuries, and the players on the roster are compounding things with careless mistakes in the field and on the bases.
“It’s got to be better, especially when you’re playing a really good team, and you’re up against a really good pitcher. You’ve got to do the little things that allow you to win ballgames,” said the perpetually optimistic Boone said following an especially sloppy game earlier this week. “The bottom line is, we’re really close to playing a good brand and a complete game.”
We have yet to see evidence the Yankees are “really close to playing a good brand and a complete game,” but hey, this is something that could turn around in an instant, like Britton and Green getting outs, Happ and Paxton pitching effectively, and Bird getting locked in at the plate. Right now, the Yankees are decimated by injuries, and many of the healthy players on the roster aren’t pulling their weight either.