What Went Wrong With the Yankees
Well, here we are. The Yankees stand at 78-74, 5.5 games back of the second Wild Card spot heading into Friday’s slate of games. Baseball Prospectus gives them a 0.2% chance of winning that Wild Card spot. Ditto at Fangraphs. It would take an absolute miracle for them to make it. It’s not happening, and these will be the last 10 games of Derek Jeter’s illustrious Major League career. Numerous post-mortems will be written in October and well into the off-season about what went wrong. Why did 4/5 of the preseason starting rotation get injured? What caused the abrupt decline of free-agent acquisitions Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann? How could Derek Jeter possibly put up .249/.298/.297 line as a 40-year-old coming off major ankle surgery? (okay, that should be expected) Dan Szymborski, founder of the ZiPS projection system, got a head-start on the field and highlighted which sub-optimal decisions caused the Yankees (and Blue Jays) to greatly lower their chances of making the postseason.
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Szymborski’s overarching theme that contributed to the Yankees’ demise, was that they tried to “hold on to the past”. He notes their indecisive approach to the luxury tax. First, they were going to stay under and let Cano walk. Then Cano signed with the Mariners so the Yankees signed big name free agents Masahiro Tanaka, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran and blew way past the luxury tax threshold. Despite this, the offense is even worse than in 2013, and last in the AL in runs scored this year. Szymborski states that Ellsbury, McCann, Kelly Johnson, and Brian Roberts made $60 million this year, while putting up just 5.9 bWAR. Contrarily, Robinson Cano made $24 million and put up 6.2 bWAR. Finally, Szymborski wonders why the team thought that it could rely heavily on Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki, both 40-years-old. As he says, even the Orioles dropped Cal Ripken Jr. down in the lineup at the end of his career and they weren’t even in contention.
In the end, the Yankees didn’t make the postseason due to a confluence of events. Part of it was unlucky: Nobody would have expected 4/5 of the rotation to go down, or Brian McCann’s offensive production to disappear or the Orioles to break out and win 90+ games. Part of it was just bad process: Playing a 40-year-old at shortstop and batting him second or signing Brian Roberts to “replace” Robinson Cano or not carrying a true backup first baseman. It’s a shame that this happened during Derek Jeter’s last season, and right after another disappointing, playoff-less year in 2013. This off-season the Yankees will likely try to amend back-to-back disappointing seasons in the only way that they know how: spend more money in free agency.