October 28, 2020

Trying To Find Things To Be Pessimistic About

With less than a week to go before Opening Day, the 2018 Yankees have everything pretty well lined up. They are, predominately, healthy. Not one player has had one of those dreadful spring trainings that make you think twice. The young prospects all represented themselves well. It has been as quiet of a Spring Training that a Yankees team has had in quite some time.

That’s notable, considering that expectations are quite high for this group, especially after adding Giancarlo Stanton, Neil Walker, and Brandon Drury. With an explosive lineup, a powerful bullpen, and a rotation that could be better than projected, the Yankees are a playoff favorite.  The Yankees look well equipped with their current roster and their tremendous farm depth that looks poised to help in case of injury.

But, the American League East isn’t a foregone conclusion. There is a perception that the Boston Red Sox haven’t improved despite coming off of the division title, 93 wins, a tremendously talented outfield, and adding JD Martinez to the middle of their lineup. That perception is false. The Red Sox will be competing for a title. The Baltimore Orioles don’t project to be contenders, but they have quietly added a few pieces that will make them competitive, the latest being right-hander Alex Cobb. The Rays did sell off its franchise player and traded away other known players, but there is an argument that they are no worse off than the club that won 80 games last season. The Blue Jays added a lot more depth in order to combat their inevitable injury woes, making them a better team.

In other words, the playoffs aren’t a given. That’s obvious just as it is obvious to say that health is one of the factors of whether or not they make the playoffs. Every team deals with injuries. Every team has those worries.

The Yankees do enter the season as a favorite, but there are several things that must go right in order to fulfill these lofty expectations.

The Manager

There will likely be a point this season when there will be some sort of outcry about letting Joe Girardi go. As much criticism as he took, Girardi was masterful at handling the bullpen. He grew into the role of communicator and really was able to get the most out of many flawed teams he was given over the last four seasons. And, to replace him with Aaron Boone seems risky, considering he has zero experience in a dugout. But, to be clear, experience is overrated, especially since Boone is an excellent communicator, fluent in today’s analytics, and has stayed current in the game.

Why this decision? Why with this team? It’s Brian Cashman looking at his roster today. It’s him projecting his roster for the next five to ten years. It’s him looking at the modern game and the modern player. With all of that in mind, the choice isn’t about tradition. It’s about projecting what current and future needs are in that manager position. Brian Cashman felt that of the current pool of candidates, Aaron Boone checked off most of those boxes and has the qualities forward thinking teams are looking for in 2018 and beyond. That’s the very definition of a logical choice, even if it doesn’t feel quite right to today’s fans and analysts.

Now, Aaron Boone will have to lead the Yankees on a successful run. While he might check off those “future qualities”, he still has to have this team produce. If not, this decision will look foolish. But, isn’t that the case of every Manager choice? It could make sense when the person is hired, but one can’t evaluate until there are wins and losses.

Aaron Boone isn’t the safe choice. But, he appears to be, at least to Brian Cashman, the logical choice. The baseball front office has changed, which has impacted rosters and on field deployment. Because of that, the role of the Manager has to change. With that, the type of person getting the job has to change. While Aaron Boone lacks tradition coaching experience, he evidently has the other qualities. There is a strong argument that those qualities are more important than the traditional experience, especially for what Brian Cashman feels his team needs next.

The New York Yankees and Brian Cashman are betting on that argument. Forward thinking organizations often make those types of bets. How fast Boone grows into the role of in-game tactician will impact the 2018 season.

145

Again, every team deals with health and injury risk, but this is a bit different. Giancarlo Stanton has played in 145 games or more in just three of his eight Major League seasons. His 2017 was spectacular as he set career highs in runs scored, hits, doubles, home runs, RBI, and slugging percentage. He also set a career high with 159 games played. That last fact has seemingly masked his previous injury history that saw him hit the 145 mark just one time since 2012. Yes, his production prodigious. But, that prodigiousness has to be on the field. Last year, he was healthy. The Yankees need a repeat of that health. The designated hitter spot should, theoretically, help that, but it is far from a given that Stanton can now be reliably penciled into the lineup the majority of the season. The Yankees definitely have depth, but Stanton is part of the foundation of the lineup. His availability and durability are big factors for the 2018 season.

Judge Regression

It’s a popular narrative that is gaining too much steam. Yes, Aaron Judge had a BABIP of .357, a higher than league average mark. So, if it normalizes a bit, a decline in batting average and on-base percentage will follow. But, the real regression could be in the 18.7 percent walk rate. That was his career best at any level of professional baseball. And, it was more than 10 percent better than the league average. The young slugger showed great plate discipline. As the league adjusts to him, Judge will have to continue to evolve even more as a patient hitter. Make no mistake, teams will be adjusting to Judge. He will have to show the same patience he had last season, which was a remarkable jump in that skill.

Repeating Rotation

Last season, Luis Severino, CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, and Jordan Montgomery made a combined 144 starts. Coming into last season, the rotation was a question mark, but it responded with surprising durability. Only Tanaka turned in a worse than league average season as Severino made good on all of his promise and work with Pedro Martinez. CC Sabathia completed his evolution from power pitcher to a clone of late career-Andy Pettitte. Montgomery, although his innings per start were low, showed poise and promise for a better season in 2018. Gray came at the deadline and provided quality innings.

But, underneath those solid performances were some FIP’s that do indicate that the rotation benefited from the defense. Sabathia’s stellar 3.69 ERA is dampened a bit by his FIP of 4.49. Montgomery’s FIP of 4.07 was slightly worse than his 3.87 ERA. Gray was at a 4.87 FIP, compared to his Yankees’ ERA of 3.72. Severino’s 3.08 FIP was pretty much in line with his 2.98 ERA. Only Tanaka had a better FIP than ERA, but that 4.34 FIP isn’t worth bragging about.

The argument can be made that the Yankees’ rotation doesn’t have to be anything more than league average for them to make the playoffs. The offense and bullpen can carry them. But, the 2018 version does have to repeat its durability, which does seem like a stretch considering Sabathia’s age, Tanaka’s recent history, Gray’s durability history, and the fact that Severino and Montgomery are coming off of career highs in innings pitched.

There is enough of a track record as well as projected growth in Severino and Montgomery to believe that the rotation will be an asset or, at the very least, not a hindrance. But, this group does enter the season as the Yankees’ biggest question mark.