Yankees need to improve at baseball nuance to avoid same fate

TAMPA — As spring training opens, let’s skip the usual platitudes from this time of year, from every player being in the best shape of his life to even the A’s and Reds mustering good vibes en route to the 90-plus-loss reality of the season.

For the Yankees, let’s ignore the beginning. Let’s jump to the end, moving beyond eight months of wondering when Josh Donaldson gets released and when Giancarlo Stanton’s two injured list stints will occur.

Here in the future, the Yankees have beaten yet another outclassed AL Central patsy in the Division Series, but now it is Oct. 22, ALCS Game 6, and they have been eliminated by the Astros again. Aaron Boone and Aaron Judge tell reporters they think the team is sooooo close and how it is going to be all the sweeter when the Yankees do win it all for the first time since 2009.

This has begun to feel like “Seinfeld” — we have seen all the episodes already and it is still mildly amusing, but yada, yada, yada.

To end this cycle of despondency, the Yankees have to get better at playing baseball. They have mastered the macro: the 162-game chess match of accumulating all the power bats and power arms that a top payroll affords. It is a version of counting cards at the blackjack table: You will win around 60 percent of the games and get to the postseason with that style.

Josh Doanldson’s 10 strikeouts in 16 plate appearances in the 2022 ALCS was emblematic of a Yankees offense that had trouble making contact against the Astros.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

And though of course those power bats and power arms matter in October — often the team that hits the most homers wins — that stat, like many, often lacks context. Because what happens if you are built around power and it is defused, and you are devoid of any other compensatory tricks? The playoffs are a smaller subset of games in which the worst opponents are long gone and a well-roundedness that the Yankees have lacked offensively is demanded.

This is not an anti-analytics screed. Teams that the Yankees regularly lose to in October, such as the Astros and Rays, are at least as analytically driven as they are. But in October, those teams  play the micro game better, too. They play the scoreboard and the moment better than the Yankees do. It was hard to ignore that in ALCS Game 4 last year — the final game of the Yankees’ 2022 season — when Yuli Gurriel put the Astros ahead for the first time and Alex Bregman put them ahead for good, both righty batters clearly were shooting for right field in RBI situations.

Donaldson, in contrast, had gotten so big with his swing last October that there was a better chance of him winning Mr. Popularity in The Bronx than taking a shot to right field. Hero ball has not worked for the Yankees in October.

Forgive a slight detour here because I think it will circle back well to the main point: I recently was listening to NBA analyst and author Kirk Goldsberry on Ryen Russillo’s podcast. Goldsberry previously worked for the Spurs. He noted that during a long regular season, with a lot of travel, the players’ drifting attention and vacillating player availability, it is difficult to install detailed scouting reports game to game. But the playoffs are different. So in the Western Conference semis against the Rockets in 2017, everyone in the Spurs organization — assistant coaches, analysts, etc. — was lasered on devising a scheme to limit James Harden, and they had 100 percent buy-in from the players. They installed a strategy to keep their hands up and away from Harden’s body to remove Harden’s pet move in which he drew fouls on 3-point tries. It limited his effectiveness, and a team reliant on one ball-dominant player all regular season was eliminated.

James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets handles the ball against the San Antonio Spurs during Game Two of the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2017 NBA Playoffs on MAY 3, 2017 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas.
Much as the Spurs and other teams have been able to game-plan for James Harden in the playoffs, the Astros have been able to limit the Yankees’ one-dimensional offense in the postseason.
NBAE via Getty Images

Basketball to baseball is not exactly apples to apples, but the Yankees offense during Boone’s five-year tenure has been James Harden — one-dimensionally great during the regular season, diminished in the postseason when terrible opponents have gone home and elite ones can unplug or lessen the impact of a singular trait that a team is over-reliant upon. The team has not expanded its offensive portfolio all year, and now where does it turn in the biggest moments?

The Yankees rely predominantly on righty home run hitters, and in June against the Royals and Tigers, it is difficult to game plan against, for especially bad teams. But in October, the Astros can take the air out of that offense — Houston didn’t even use a lefty reliever in the ALCS. The Yankees batted .162 and hit three homers in four games — the only ones by righties were two by Harrison Bader. .

The Yankees tried to be better all around last year, and it stuck on defense, where they were exceptional, and should be even better in 2023 with a full year in center from Bader. But on offense, they drifted away from a running game as the season progressed and injuries to Andrew Benintendi, Matt Carpenter and DJ LeMahieu limited the left-right diversity and get-the-ball-in-play aspect of the lineup. If all three had been healthy for the ALCS, might the outcome have been different? The Yankees lost four straight, but that included two losses by one run and one loss by two runs.

In the offseason, Carpenter signed with the Padres, and the Yankees — under Hal Steinbrenner’s mandate to stay under the $293 million top luxury tax threshold — prioritized over retaining Benintendi. Not signing both will prove penny wise and roster stupid when the Yankees need to acquire a player just like Benintendi between now and the Aug. 1 trade deadline that will cost more prospect capital. That is unless Aaron Hicks shockingly becomes a useful left fielder or Oswaldo Cabrera proves he is real, though even realness in just left field would eliminate the great value of his versatility.

The Yankees can simply power their way through the regular season again and experience deja lose in the playoffs. They led the AL in runs last year, but there was deceit in that, too. So much of it was tied to a historic season by Judge. What if he is merely really good again?

New York Yankees center fielder Harrison Bader (22) out stealing during the fifth inning when the New York Yankees played the Houston Astros in game three of their ALCS Saturday, October 22, 2022 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, NY.
Giving Harrison Bader the green light to steal in front of the Yankees’ power hitters may seem like an unnecessary risk, but it could prove to be a wise habit come playoff time.
Robert Sabo for the NY Post

It is not as if the Yankees can just use the 162 games as a lab. The AL East, top to bottom, is the best division in the majors. By a lot. Still, the Yankees have fostered a championship-or-bust mentality. So they have to not just talk about having a well-rounded offense and then grow mentally and/or physically exhausted and give up on it midway through a season.

It is why Boone needs to keep his foot on the pedal.

Bader also is an elite baserunner. The Yankees must incorporate Oswald Peraza and/or Anthony Volpe sooner than later for the offensive diversity they can offer. The numbers will say not to let baserunners attempt to steal in front of Judge and Stanton and potentially eliminate a multi-run homer. But with bigger bases and fewer pickoff attempts coming this year, the heck with that, especially since waiting around in October isn’t going to work again. Never seeing the value of a base hit to right, when a single run in the postseason is so valuable, isn’t going to work again. Having too few lefty hitters isn’t going to work again — so the pressure is on Brian Cashman to find more.

The Yankees began spring training, as always, with a very good team. But they need to use the six weeks in Tampa and the 162 games that follow to play baseball better. Or we might as well skip ahead to Judge and Boone telling us how close they are to winning.