The Yankees' summer slump, explained

New York is an AL-worst 6-14 in August

August 23rd, 2022

For more than two months, the Yankees were great. Incredibly, seemingly historically great. After beating the Blue Jays on June 18, they were off to a 49-16 start, on pace for a never-ever-ever-going-to-really-happen 122 wins.

For two months since, they’ve been struggling. They’re six games under .500 since that Toronto game. It’s actually been even worse, recently – in August, they’re 6-14 after getting a win over the Mets on Monday night.

It’s hardly a disaster, not yet. They’re still 8 games up in the AL East, and their playoff odds have sunk all the way to, uh, 99.9%. This ends with a trip to the postseason no matter what happens. But it’s clear that the team is hardly firing on all cylinders right now, and it’s even clearer that the clubhouse noticed; look no further than usually even-keeled manager Aaron Boone admitting “we're all pissed off and frustrated about it” after a loss to the Blue Jays.

So: What’s happening? There are answers. You might not like them all.

1. This was always going to happen to some extent.

OK, not this, exactly, but it should also have been clear weeks ago that down times were in the future, because that is the nature of how “being on pace” can be misleading, as it assumes what has happened will continue to happen.

On June 23, when they were 51-18 and on pace for 120 wins, thanks to a start where nearly everything had gone right, we noted that the major projection systems only had them down for a 103-59 finish. That’s a 50-41 finish from that point, or a .549 winning percentage. They’ve underperformed even that, obviously. But a step back shouldn’t have been unexpected; it should have been quite expected.

We’re sorry to begin with the boring, wildly unsatisfying answer of “it’s a long season that has ups and downs,” but the simplest truth is that they are neither as good as they looked earlier in the year nor as bad as they look now.

Part of it is because some players got off to hot starts out of character with the rest of their career, like Anthony Rizzo having the second-best month of his career in April, at 32 years old, or Jose Trevino (.634 OPS with Texas) managing to carry an .861 OPS through June 11 -- which has fallen to a more in-character .655 OPS since.

Part of that, too, is because …

2. They’re now dealing with injuries.

Go back to June, when we took a look at what it would take to get to the all-time wins record, and look at what was written at the time about their health:

For one thing, the Yankees to date have been extremely healthy; while the bullpen has suffered some blows, particularly losing Chad Green for the year, the only notable position player trips to the injured list have been a pair of short 10-day stays in May from Giancarlo Stanton (ankle) and Josh Donaldson (shoulder). How long does that last, for the oldest lineup in the Majors?

The answer was: Not very. A few weeks later, Michael King was lost for the year with a fractured elbow. Giancarlo Stanton has now missed about a month with an Achilles injury. Luis Severino is down with a lat issue. Matt Carpenter broke his foot in Seattle. DJ LeMahieu is dealing with a toe problem; Rizzo is dealing with a back issue. On Monday, Scott Effross was placed on the injured list with a shoulder strain. With Clay Holmes also down with a back injury – one that is reportedly not expected to be major – the Bullpen Big Three of King, Green, and Holmes are all unavailable. The best Yankees reliever right now might be Wandy Peralta.

Part of “everything going right” is “getting great health,” and that was also not likely to last all season. Again: nothing unexpected here. Teams get injured. What’s next?

3. The offense is failing at the big things.

Now we’re talking. There’s no risk here of turning this into a “do the Yankees hit too many home runs” argument, because they’re not hitting enough home runs, or making enough contact, or really doing much of anything good. It’s all we can do to catalog it:

They’re striking out more. In the first half, they were a league-average strikeout team. In July, they were actually better than average, at 11th. In August? They’re striking out nearly 26% of the time. Only the woeful Tigers have whiffed more. Rizzo, dealing with a back injury, is in the midst of the highest strikeout month of his entire career. So is Josh Donaldson. So is Gleyber Torres. That this is all happening without the injured Stanton and the traded Joey Gallo, each high-strikeout bats, is more than a little concerning.

They’re slugging less. New York’s slugging percentage the first four months: .401, .426, .468, and .479. Through the end of July, that was the best in baseball.

New York’s slugging percentage in August: .356. It’s 25th. It’s the same as the Pirates.

This is almost all of it, right here. The teams below them -- the Pirates, A's, Reds, Marlins, and Tigers -- are all mired in losing seasons. While it's true the Yankees have won just six games this year in which they've been out-homered, which is third-fewest, it's also true that you just can't win games when you're slugging like the A's. (The Mets, for what it's worth, have won just four of those games.)

Again, when you lose Stanton and Carpenter to injury, that’s not a total surprise, though it’s hard to imagine the ex-Cardinal was going to keep up his 2022 miracle renaissance to the same extent anyway. Some of this is Rizzo’s expected return to earth, as well as a back injury he’s been dealing with recently. Some of it is that the early season gains of Torres, Josh Donaldson, and Aaron Hicks have all but disappeared. Some of it is that you can live with below-average shortstop offense from Isiah Kiner-Falefa when the rest of the offense is humming, but not when they’re not.

It’s not about ‘small ball,’ not really; this month’s Yankees offense is going opposite field more than any other month, and they’re not bunting any more or less. It’s not even really about singles so much, not when they’re getting a greater share of singles per batted ball this month than they did in June. It’s that only 10.6% of their batted balls are going for extra-base hits, and that’s the second-weakest month they’ve had in the last six years.

You can see it in action in Monday’s lineup. The four players listed in the final four spots have a .654 OPS this year. That’s not “bad luck,” that’s just “not good enough,” again in part because of injuries.

4. The base running is worse.

It’s the small things, too. Much was made of how last year’s Yankees team was incredibly poor on the bases – 2nd-worst, according to FanGraphs – and how they put emphasis on improving it this year. To their credit, they did; as of our June 8 look, they’d gone from 2nd-worst to league-average, a nice jump.

But in the second half, they’ve taken a huge step back … all the way down to 2nd-worst again. Most prominently, this bit them in a 13-inning loss to the Mariners on Aug. 10, when multiple base running mistakes helped cost them the game.

5. The trades haven’t really worked yet.

New York acquired five players at the Deadline, and to their credit, they went out and traded for the consensus second-best starter available, Frankie Montas. That Montas has been immediately unsuccessful – a 9.00 ERA in three games, and a strikeout rate less than half of what he had with Oakland – should hopefully just be a rough introduction, given his track record.

But Harrison Bader has yet to play due to a foot injury he had in St. Louis. Andrew Benintendi didn’t hit his first homer until his 23rd game with the team and has just a .691 OPS. Scott Effross had been good enough since coming from the Cubs, though not quite as good as he’d been there, and now he's hurt; Lou Trivino, who came with Montas, has continued to fiddle with his repertoire and has allowed just one earned run and one extra-base hit in pinstripes.

It’s not that they can’t work, or won’t. Bader, when healthy, is a fantastic outfielder and an upgrade in most every way over Hicks. There’s no immediate reason to suspect Montas won’t turn it around. But that Joey Gallo has been productive for the Dodgers (1.038 OPS) and that Jordan Montgomery has been fantastic for the Cardinals (1 earned run in 3 starts) certainly is not helping soothe the pain here.

6. The pitching has stopped missing bats.

This isn’t unrelated to the reliever injuries, of course, but there’s still a pretty notable change here, which is that in the first half, the Yankees had the fourth-best strikeout rate in baseball, but so far in August, it’s … all the way down to 24th-best. It’s just above the Royals.

What’s happening here? Clearly, the loss of those big-time bullpen arms has something to do with it, but it’s not just that, because the rotation is down by about as much as the bullpen is.

You can set aside Jameson Taillon, who has had a somewhat consistent monthly strikeout rate (though with constantly increasing walk rates). It’s partially that Nestor Cortes Jr., while still being effective, hasn’t been able to come close to his early season strikeout rates – not surprisingly.

Gerrit Cole has been down a little; the inconsistent Domingo Germán has been down a lot. But mostly, it’s that Jordan Montgomery (26.2% strikeout rate in July) has been replaced by Montas (11.8%), who, again, has not performed anywhere near expectations. You probably don't expect Cortes to regain that April strikeout stuff. The Yankees absolutely expect Montas to double -- or more -- his strikeout rate.

7. The defense is still pretty good.

Nothing to see here, but still worth noting that something is working. The effort to improve the defense was a big focus of the offseason, and the early returns were great. Despite some high-profile misses, the defense still ranks as a top-10 unit this month.

8. The future is still bright, just not as bright as it looked in June.

Stanton should be back soon. Holmes should be back soon. Zack Britton has been throwing and should be available soon. Plus, the August schedule that has been so brutal – they’ve faced the Mariners, Cardinals, Mariners again, Red Sox, Rays, Blue Jays and now Mets – lightens up considerably over the next few weeks.

If we go back to the projections, they’re at this point projected to win 96 games. That would be a disappointment for a team that seemed like they’d easily clear 100 wins. It also won’t matter, because they’d get one of the two byes in the American League, allowing them to rest and reset for the Division Series. (It would matter a little if they faced Houston, who would then have home-field advantage.)

As we wrote on June 23, they were the 13th team to get off to a start this good through 69 games. Do remember what else was written at that time: “Every single one of the dozen teams that got off to a start that great played worse for the remainder of the year, by an average of -.133 of winning percentage, which is a good reminder of just how difficult this all is.”

Every single one of those great start teams took a step back. So, too, have the Yankees. There are still more than six weeks left in the season to turn this around, and given the players they’re expecting to get back soon, it’s likely that they will. After all, they were never as good as they looked early ... and it’s not as rough as it looks now.