2020 was a weird year for baseball and all of professional sports. Very few sports allowed live spectators, and in the years to come, we’ll shake our heads and marvel at footage from the abbreviated 2020 baseball season that shows cardboard cutouts in the seats meant to represent fans.
Still, the Los Angeles Dodgers, who won the World Series last year, have no trouble claiming their win should not have an asterisk next to it, as some baseball historians are already saying it should. They feel like they had to scratch and claw through injuries and pandemic-related hardships to claim victory, so their win should be just as legit as any other.
This year, though, there are no excuses. Each team is in the midst of playing a regular 162-game schedule, and that includes the New York Yankees, who came into this year determined to win their first world championship since the 2009 season. That’s a long drought for a New York team with 27 world titles to their credit.
At the moment, though, the Yanks are just one game above the .500 mark. So, what gives? Why is this team underachieving so badly, especially with one of baseball’s highest payrolls?
A Shaky Closer
Most people call baseball a “non-contact” sport. It’s not exactly the sort of game where you must often cart athletes off the field with significant spinal cord injuries, as more often happens with football.
Still, when the Yanks took the field for a three-game series this past weekend against the crosstown rival
Mets, the fans bruised their egos, if not their physical bodies. The Yanks lost the first game Friday night, and the weather washed out the second game on Saturday. The team certainly had a commanding lead in the first game of Sunday’s doubleheader, but then, it all fell apart when their All-Star closer, Aroldis Chapman, couldn’t record a single out.
The Mets clobbered Chapman and ended up winning that game by a score of 10-5. The Yankee fans serenaded their team with boos as they left the clubhouse, with their record back to .500 on the year. The Yanks managed to beat the Mets in the second half of that doubleheader to get back to one game above .500, but that’s not anywhere close to where this team expected to be at this point in the season.
Having a Solid Closer Matters
The closer position matters a great deal in baseball. Aroldis Chapman, the mercurial Yankee ninth-inning reliever, isn’t as reliable as their retired Hall of Famer, Mariano Rivera. It’s true that Chapman helped the Chicago Cubs win a World Series back in 2016, but this version of Chapman often gives up home runs, walks batters, and very seldom records drama-free saves.
After getting drubbed by the Mets over the weekend, Chapman’s ERA is well over 4. That’s pretty bad, and you know the closer is doubting himself after his last few performances. The Yankee front office must also feel like they’re overpaying him by a considerable amount since they opened their wallets to bring him back from Chicago.
What Else is Wrong?
Apart from Chapman, the rest of the Yankee bullpen has been pretty good lately. So, what else is wrong with the team? You have to point to a lack of offense, which is baffling, especially when you consider that this squad features Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, DJ LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Luke Voit, and Gary Sanchez.
Of those names, only Aaron Judge is having a good year. He will be at the All-Star Game for the third time in his career, bringing up the question of whether the Yanks are going to extend him after this year or whether they’re willing to let him go to another team.
Giancarlo Stanton has huge holes in his swing, and it doesn’t seem likely that he will ever be able to duplicate the MVP season he had with the Marlins. DJ LeMahieu is not hitting for either average or power like he has at other points in his career. Luke Voight has spent much of the year to this point on the injured list, while Gary Sanchez is performing better than he did last year, but still isn’t having a stellar 2021 campaign.
A Power Outage
In short, there’s a power outage up and down the lineup. The names might be formidable, but this is no 2021 edition of Murderer’s Row. Mediocre pitchers don’t fear the Yankees right now, despite the players on their roster. Top-flight pitchers are mowing them down and embarrassing them.
Some Yankee fans speculate that the hitting coach could be the problem. The current hitting coach is Marcus Thames, and when he was a player, his all-time batting average was only .246. That’s pretty bad, so why should this be the guy to instruct Giancarlo Stanton or any of the other struggling players on how to correct their swings?
Also, the Yankee winning formula involves the home run. If their home run numbers are down, as they are this year, they can’t seem to adjust by playing small ball. They don’t have the speed on the base paths to steal a lot of bases. They simply don’t have that kind of athleticism, with hulking monsters like Voight, Judge, and Stanton.
If a baseball team is playing well, you can often see they’re loose when you look at their body language. Look at the smiles and laughs when you watch a team like the San Diego Padres this year, who are giving the Giants and Dodgers a run for their money in the National League West.
The Yankees are just the opposite. They’re playing tight, and they seldom smile. Why would they, when they keep striking out, and their own fans are booing them in their home ballpark?
They still do have time to turn the season around, but to paraphrase Yogi Berra, things are getting late early for this squad.