NEW YORK—On the afternoon before Opening Day, Anthony Rizzo could see the future.
“There’s going to be ups and downs throughout the year — it’s inevitable,” said Rizzo, the yankees first baseman. “We’re going to be really good at times, and we’re going to be ‘What the hell is wrong with the Yankees?’ at times. That comes with putting on this jersey.”
As far as prophecies go, this was not the hardest to conjure. The Yankees (10-6) play baseball inside a cauldron of expectations, in which a five-year postseason streak can be considered a failure and a $246 million payroll can be called a pauper’s receipt. Any game, even in April, can double as a referendum on the managerial acumen of Aaron Boone, the team-building tendencies of Brian Cashman, the perceived stinginess of Hal Steinbrenner. The crucible is daily. The next opposing franchise that pities their plight will be the first.
And so it was that the Yankees lived out Rizzo’s vision over the past week, a period in which the club won five games, lost once and still quieted few concerns about their offensive approach. When things go well, as they did during a sweep this weekend against Cleveland, the group looks resourceful and robust. When the offense sputters, as it did during a sloppy, inefficient but ultimately successful series in Detroit, the lineup looks creaky and one-dimensional.
This is the fate of all offenses when bats go quiet. It gets magnified in New York. And it becomes more pronounced when the lineup, as the Yankees do in the eyes of some rival evaluators, has a uniform goal. “The approach is just to try and hit home runs all the time,” one scout said. He added another, “Even guys who are more complete hitters are n’t trying to be that. It’s just ‘Get the ball up in the air, lift and drive.’”
This cartoon is not new. It has endured, in recent years, despite the incorporation of contact-oriented hitters like Rizzo and DJ LeMahieu. It is unlikely to depart, even after the success against the Guardians. A two-homer evening from Aaron Judge keyed the offense on Friday. The group staged a walk-off comeback victory in the ninth inning on Saturday, with two-out hits supplied by Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Gleyber Torres. On Sunday, Rizzo launched a first-inning blast and opened a three-run third inning with a leadoff double.
The 10-run tally on Sunday was the team’s best output in this young season. The Yankees entered Sunday ranked 24th in runs scored and 25th in OPS with runners in scoring position. There was reason to believe both figures would improve. The Yankees also led the sport in barrel percentage, hard-hit percentage and exit velocity, according to Baseball Savant.
At one point over the weekend, Boone chuckled about the folly of attempting to draw conclusions from such a small sample of games. “I wish I had a nickel,” Boone said, “for every time I said ‘Understanding that we’ve only had two weeks. . . ‘”
Boone downplayed the suggestion that his club had been penalized by the latest edition of the baseball, which appears to be less lively after Major League Baseball installed humidors at all 30 parks. Boone acknowledged “the baseball has obviously changed in the last year or two,” but declined to use that as cover.
“That’s not an excuse,” Boone said on Friday afternoon. “The baseball’s the same for everyone. We’ve got to go out there and perform as a group, as an offense, the way we’re capable of. If we’re doing things we’re capable of doing, the results will be there.”
For the past several seasons, the centerpiece of the Yankees lineup has been a pair of imposing, right-handed sluggers, Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. Both boast fearsome power. Both also strike out in more than a quarter of their at-bats. The team’s major addition at last year’s trade deadline was joey rooster, a former All-Star who strikes out more than 35 percent of the time and has played underwater throughout this tenure in The Bronx. This winter, Cashman acquired veteran third baseman Josh Donaldsonwho strikes out less often than Judge and Stanton, but hits with a lower batting average.
The general perception among rival evaluators, when scouting the group, is the Yankees would like to slug, are happy to walk and don’t mind striking out. Some teams believe that common approach can be exploited. It can be vexing to watch a procession of runners stranded, as the club did on its most recent road trip, leaving 48 men aboard in six games while batting .172 with runners on base.
It can also, when effective, look fierce. For a hitter, there is no better outcome than a home run.
On Sunday afternoon in The Bronx, Boone drew up a new lineup. A day off for Stanton moved Donaldson into the cleanup spot. During the season’s first 16 games, Boone has not utilized the same lineup before. The batting order and defensive alignment create a daily puzzle. The team juggles at-bats between infielders LeMahieu, Donaldson and Gleyber Torres. If the group remains healthy and productive — a significant caveat — the puzzle will be Boone’s to solve all season.
In this regard, the Yankees are operating like other industry leaders. the Dodgers used 146 different lineups in 2021. The giants topped them at 148. The rays ran through 158 unique configurations. The Rays ranked second in the sport in runs last season; the Dodgers ranked fourth. By some metrics, like OPS and weighted on-base average, the Giants sported the best offense in the National League in 2021.
Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and manager Gabe Kapler indicated that assembling a lineup with a diversity of approach was not a prerequisite for offensive success. You can win with nine hitters all trying to do the same thing, both said. If, of course, that singular goal is a productive one.
“The one network effect that you can get in a lineup, for a lack of a better term, is when you have a lot of guys who have really high at-bat quality,” Zaidi said. “You get some scale from having nine guys who will grind at-bats, wear out the opposing pitching staff. But just in terms of like, ‘Is this a power guy? Is this a contact guy? Does this guy hit groundballs? Line drives?’ I don’t think having a diversity of attack in those dimensions is really that important.”
Kapler suggested elite lineups develop core common traits, either by design or osmosis. “The one approach that I think we want to be very consistent with, and not diversify too much, is being especially aggressive on drivable pitches, and more patient on pitches that you can’t drive,” Kapler said.
Mets manager Buck Showalter suggested there was a benefit in stylistic differences. “You want to make sure that you present a challenge for them, where they can’t have — what do they call it, a lane? — where they can use one [relief] pitcher for multiple hitters,” Showalter said. But Showalter was speaking more about the construction of a lineup on a given day, rather than the construction of a lineup in the aggregate. To Zaidi, a homogenous approach may only look like a problem in times of strife.
“When your offense lacks variety, in whatever way it is — let’s say you have nine guys who are really productive hitters but really aggressive hitters who chase a lot — any time things are going badly, it’s going to look way worse,” Zaidi said . “Because you’re seeing some of the same faults exposed over and over again. But that doesn’t mean that that is not going to course-correct, over the 162-game season.”
The Yankees experienced famine during a recent road trip through Baltimore and Detroit. This weekend against Cleveland looked more like a feast. With an offense like this, these swings are unavoidable. So are swings like the one Rizzo unleashed in Sunday’s first inning, bending at the waist to club a curveball from Guardians starter Aaron Civale. For a moment, as Rizzo rounded the bases, no one was wondering what the hell was wrong with the Yankees.
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