With three weeks remaining in the 2021 regular season, the New York Yankees have been arguably the streakiest team in baseball, and they're currently fighting for a wild-card spot. They've lost four straight series since their 13-game winning streak, including series losses to the Angels, Orioles and Mets. Not exactly powerhouses, you know?
Two weeks ago we looked at Aaron Judge's declining strikeout rate, and the team's improved baserunning and fly ball ability. Now here are three new notable Yankees trends.
Stanton the outfielder
For much of the last three seasons the Yankees have used Giancarlo Stanton as a full-time DH. It made sense seeing how a variety of injuries limited Stanton to only 41 of 222 possible games from 2019-20. After playing the field in the 2019 postseason, Stanton did not play a single inning in the outfield in 2020, and he played his first 81 games this season at DH as well.
That all changed in late July in, appropriately enough, Stanton's former home ballpark in Miami. The Yankees finally put Stanton back in the outfield during an interleague series against the Marlins, and he's played the outfield fairly regularly since then as the club tries to keep Luke Voit in the lineup alongside trade deadline additions Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo.
Including the Miami series, Stanton has made 19 of his last 39 starts and 14 of his last 25 starts in the outfield, so he's playing the field now, and he's playing it a little more often as the season progresses. And during that time, Stanton has mashed. He's been much more productive as an outfielder than as a DH, in fact. The numbers going into Monday's game:
It's not a huge sample as an outfielder, but when the Yankees have put Stanton in the outfield, he's played well, and it hasn't taken away from his offense at all. Stanton even suggested playing the field helps his offense because he's not sitting around between at-bats. There's only so much video work and hitting in the cage you can do between at-bats before it becomes counterproductive.
"I think (playing the outfield) has helped kind of just not focusing on hitting," Stanton told reporters, including Peter Botte of the New York Post, last month. "You always want to be your best in the box, and feel like you're in the best mind frame. But that also means turning it off for a second and using that focus somewhere else … So yeah, it helps in some way."
Also, Stanton is a pretty good outfielder! He's not a lumbering oaf in the field even though it's easy to stereotype him. From 2014-18, Stanton ranked 17th among all outfielders with plus-33 defensive runs saved. In his limited outfield action this year the various defensive stats say he's been average to a tick above, which is pretty good considering the injuries and long outfield layoff.
Stanton has yet to start three consecutive days in the outfield (he has started three consecutive games in the outfield, but not three consecutive days), so while the Yankees are loosening the reins a little bit, they're haven't thrown him to the wolves yet either. The time he has spent in the outfield has been very productive though. Stanton's hit well and hasn't been a liability defensively.
"I think if anything, physically it's helped him, moving around and keeping his body going," Yankees manager Aaron Boone told Botte. "It's been a seamless transition right back out there. Looks like he's been playing regularly all year, the last couple of years."
Urshela piling up strikeouts
Two years ago Gio Urshela was one of the biggest surprise stories in baseball, coming out of nowhere to Wally Pipp the 2018 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up (Miguel Andújar) and hit .310/.358/.523 with 27 home runs in 175 games from 2019-20. Prior to 2019, Urshela was a career .225/.274/.315 hitter in the big leagues and a career .275/.316/.412 hitter in Triple-A.
This year Urshela, now 29, has been one of many underperforming Yankees. He went into Monday's game 5 for 43 (.116) with 15 strikeouts since returning from a hamstring injury last month, and with a .255/.292/.402 batting line and 11 home runs in 97 games overall. Urshela missed a month with the hamstring and also some time with COVID-19, though he wasn't hitting much before that.
"Just a little bit in-between," Boone told reporters, including Zach Braziller of the New York Post, about Urshela's post-injured list slump. "He's been behind the fastball a little bit. He's chased and out in front of some breaking balls. That can happen where your timing is not there yet and that's what he's got to be able to find right now."
The most surprising thing about Urshela's down year (down relative to his 2019-20 standards) is the massive uptick in strikeouts. Even when he wasn't all that productive earlier in his career, Urshela didn't strike out much. He fanned in 18.0 percent of his plate appearances prior to 2019, and it was 17.2 percent from 2019-20. That was comfortably below the 23.1 percent league average.
Urshela went into Monday's game with a 26.0 percent strikeout rate that was higher than Aaron Judge's (25.5 percent) and on par with his more whiff-happy teammates like Stanton (26.9 percent) and Gary Sánchez (26.6 percent). His strikeout rate increase from 2020 to 2021 is the largest in baseball (min. 170 plate appearances in 2020 and 2021):
|2020 K%||2021 K%||Increase|
Gio Urshela, Yankees
Luke Voit, Yankees
Urshela's swing rates are the same this year as the last two years. He's swinging at pitches in and out of the zone at the same rate, and he's making contact on pitches in the zone at the same rate too. The strikeout increase is tied to misses on pitches out of the zone. From 2019-20 he made contact with 68.4 percent of his swings on pitches out of the zone. This year it's 60.4 percent.
At his best, Urshela is a bad ball hitter with a knack for putting pitcher's pitches in play, or simply fouling them away to extend an at-bat. Now he's missing with four out of every 10 swings against pitches out of the zone rather than three out of every 10, and his strikeouts are going up. Look at some of the pitches Urshela missed this past weekend against the Mets:
Not a single one of those pitches was a strike out of the pitcher's hand. They were well outside the zone and should've been easy takes, even in two-strike counts, yet Urshela hacked at all of 'em. He's been missing on more swings out of the zone this year in general, and especially lately now that he's pressing a bit and expanding the zone even more than usual. It's a bad combination.
"It's been a little bit difficult, but I'm still trying to get that rhythm and timing," Urshela told Braziller over the weekend. "Hopefully it changes today."
At this point there's not much the Yankees can do other than hope Urshela snaps out of his post-injured list slump, and finishes the season strong. In the offseason, they'll have to determine whether 2021 was a blip and Urshela can be counted on going into 2022, or whether the clock has struck midnight on a late bloomer and it's time to find a new third baseman.
Green's home run problem
Over the past five years right-handed Chad Green has been among the most reliable relievers in baseball. He's been a workhorse for the Yankees and done everything from work multi-inning stints as a setup man to filling in at closer to even being used as an opener. From 2017-20, Green pitched to a 2.70 ERA and 0.99 WHIP, and was seventh among all relievers with 239 1/3 innings.
Earlier this year Green was having a typical Chad Green season, and serving as a lockdown setup man in front of closer Aroldis Chapman through the middle of June. Over the last two months though, Green has caught a bad case of dingeritis, and given up eight home runs in his last 27 2/3 innings. That's one homer every 3.5 innings or so. Yikes.
Because he's a trusted reliever who typically pitches in high-leverage innings, any home runs Green allows tend to be costly. They usually blow a lead and/or give the other team the lead. Over the last two months Green has surrendered back-breaking homers to Astros, Mariners, White Sox, Athletics, and twice this past weekend against the Mets.
Even at his best from 2017-20, Green was always a bit home run prone. He allowed 28 home runs in 239 1/3 innings those years, or 1.05 homers per nine innings pitched. His home-run rate climbed every year from 0.52 HR/9 in 2017 to 1.07 HR/9 in 2018 to 1.30 HR/9 in 2019 to 1.75 HR/9 in 2020. This year it's 1.58 HR/9 overall, though much worse lately.
Green's homer problems appear to stem from a decline in stuff -- he's close to a fastball-only reliever who is more 95-96 mph these days rather than 98-99 mph like in the past -- and also fatigue. The Yankees have worked Green very hard this year. He'll likely set new career highs in appearances and innings by this weekend, and that's after a weird 60-game season a year ago.
The thing is, even if Green if worn down, the Yankees can't afford to take their foot off the gas. Ace reliever Jonathan Loáisiga is out with a sore shoulder (he too has been worked hard this year) and Chapman has struggled more than Green the last two months. Boone has limited options in the late innings. He can either hope Green gets it done, or rely on lesser relievers. It's a tough spot.
Despite the home run issues, Green has struck out 37 batters with only seven walks in his last 27 2/3 innings, and opponents have a .295 on-base percentage against him. The homers are pretty much the only way to score against him. Given their place in the standings and their other bullpen options, the Yankees have little choice but to hope Green finds a way to keep the ball in the park these next three weeks.