Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, August 16, 2023 -- "Those Damn Yankees Are the Best in...wait, what?"


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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter: Those Damn Yankees Are the Best in...wait, what?
Vol. 15, No. 84
August 16, 2023

Where were you in the summer of 1995? Me, I was in Orange County, Calif., just about to land my first job in journalism, planning a wedding with my fiancée, excited about my new 53K modem and assuming I’d always be able to run full court all afternoon without needing a defibrillator. Ah, youth.

Back then, just a few months before my life would be changed by a book project, I was following my Yankees from afar. They were “my” Yankees then, just a few years removed from teen years spent obsessively watching every inning of every game. We’d been among the teams most screwed by the 1994 strike, an event that wiped out a 100-win season and certain World Series title.

So the 1995 campaign was a bit frustrating. The Yankees slipped out of first place in April and under .500 in June, the offense that printed runs in the shortened season -- a .374 OBP! -- unable to get going in ’95. They would eventually pull it together, clinch a playoff berth on the final day of the season, and go to sweep the Mariners 2-0 in the first-ever Division Series. That’s how I remember it, anyway.

This little trip to the past is brought to you by the current Yankees, who lost a noncompetitive game last night to the Braves, 5-0, to slip to 60-60. This is the first year since 1995 that the Yankees have been at or below .500 this late in the season. That 1995 team would not get over .500 for good until September 8, part of a 19-4 run that locked up the first AL wild-card slot in baseball history.

This team doesn’t have that kind of closing kick to them. The roster that took on the Braves last night had 13 position players. One (1) has an OPS above 800, and he’s pretty easy to pick out of a crowd. After watching the 2022 Yankees be undercut by the offense around Aaron Judge, Brian Cashman has failed to fix the problem.

Last night’s team performed a feat unmatched in baseball history: It picked up just one hit, and still grounded into four double plays. The Yankees had just 24 at-bats last night, which is the fewest any team has had in nine full innings since 2003, and tied for the tenth-fewest in nine full innings since at least 1901. The Yankees went 1-for-20 on contact last night, hitting just one ball at 100 mph or better, just two with an expected batting average of .250 or higher. They’re not the Bronx Bombers any more, or even the Bronx Burners, they’re the Bronx Bummers. The Yankees are well on their way to having their worst offense in seven years, and one of their worst since George Steinbrenner’s suspension fixed the franchise.

Bronx Bloopers (worst Yankee team wRC+, 1995-2023)

        AVG   OBP   SLG   wRC+
2013   .242  .307  .376    86
2016   .252  .314  .405    92
2014   .245  .307  .380    94
2023   .232  .307  .402    98
2021   .237  .322  .407   101

We don’t talk about batting average any more, but that .232 mark would be the team’s lowest since 1968, and the only time outside of Deadball I and II that the Yankees have hit under .235.

There’s no way to fix this for 2023, of course, and the drama left in the Yankee season has shifted from “can they make the playoffs” -- they’ve slipped to 6 1/2 out of the last wild-card spot -- to “can they stay out of last place.” No Yankee team has finished under .500 since 1992, and none has finished last since the Summer of Maas in 1990.

The pitching isn’t going to save the Yankees; two members of the projected starting rotation, Nestor Cortes and Carlos Rodon, are on the IL and more likely to be shut down than to pitch in a playoff game. Luis Severino should probably join them, but the Yankees need the innings so badly than he’s being run out there to get waxed. Last night’s four-inning, five-run start was, by Game Score, Severino’s median performance in 15 appearances this season. I’m not sure you can even make him a qualifying offer, one year at $20 million, at this point.

The bullpen, such a strength of the organization for so long, has fallen apart: a 4.34 FIP and negative fWAR since the All-Star break, the latter ranking 24th in MLB. Sunday’s collapse against the Marlins, in which Clay Holmes and Tommy Kahnle combined to retire one of eight batters in the ninth inning and blow a 7-3 lead in an 8-7 loss, will likely be remembered as the day the season ended.

It’s the offense, though, that is the biggest reason for the lost year, a series of reasonable-in-the-moment choices by Cashman all going bad at once. Giancarlo Stanton is a replacement-level player and will produce less than one win for the fourth time in five years. DJ LeMahieu had a 146 OPS+ on his first Yankee contract, and has a 101 mark on his second -- 92 this year with a .242 BA. Cashman went back to the well with Anthony Rizzo, who dropped from a 132 OPS to a 96, possibly playing two months through a concussion. Harrison Bader has played in 89 games in the year since he was acquired, posting a .289 OBP. Aaron Hicks was released, Josh Donaldson was on that track before suffering what will probably be a season-ending calf injury.

I can defend, if not necessarily agree with, the decisions that placed all those players on the 2023 Yankees. In toto, though, they add up to the strongest case against Cashman, that he built this expensive, do-nothing offense that will end up keeping the Yankees out of the 2023 playoffs. That’s not, to me, enough reason to fire him, given his track record and the Yankees’ record under him. For the first time, though, there’s reason to have the conversation. This winter, Cashman is playing for his job.