Alex Kielar | November 7th, 2019
Any season that ends without hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy for the New York Yankees is considered a disappoint. So when the Yankees lost to the Astros in six games in the American League Championship Series, there was obviously a lot of disappointment. But that doesn’t mean it was a complete and utter failure of a 2019 season. Let’s delve further into the Yankees’ 2019 season and what to look forward to for 2020.
Make sure to check out all of our other MLB team recaps here.
The Yankees had very high expectations coming into the season and seemed to overcome every bump in the road along the way. They faced injuries to an MLB-record 30 different players and still found their way to their first American League East division title since 2012. Their ultimate fallout in the ALCS against the Astros was not, in fact, their starting pitching that was their biggest issue throughout the season, but their inability to hit with runners in scoring position. They found themselves with several chances against the Astros aces Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, they just weren’t able to capitalize.
What Went Right
The Yankees used the “Next Man Up” mantra all season in the midst of their 39 DL stints to 30 different players. Every player that came in for the “Savages in the Box” to replace an injured player had some sort of positive impact on the team.
Their most consistent player was DJ LeMahieu, who they signed to a two-year $24 million contract in the offseason. LeMahieu wasn’t even in the Opening Day lineup, and was only expected to be a utility and bench player, but wound up playing in 145 games. He rotated between playing second (75 games), third (52 games), and first base (40 games), while also DHing one game. LeMahieu slashed .327/.375/.518 with 26 HR and 102 RBI on the season. He also came up “clutch” many times as he held a .389 batting average with runners in scoring position. His 136 wRC+ and .375 wOBA were also sixth among American League infielders.
Other than LeMahieu, the Yankees best player was young stud Gleyber Torres, who had a great breakthrough year to develop into a superstar. If I were to give an MVP award for the Yankees, I would probably make LeMahieu and Torres co-MVPs, as they both were big factors in the Yankees’ success. Torres slashed .278/.337/.535 with 38 HR and 90 RBI, with his .535 slugging being third among AL middle infielders. Torres played 77 games at shortstop, 65 at second, and five at DH.
The Yankees saw solid production from “B-team” players Mike Tauchman (.277/.361/.504, 13 HR, 47 RBI, 128 wRC+ in 87 G), a lowkey offseason trade acquisition from the Rockies, Mike Ford (.259/.350/.559, 12 HR, 25 RBI, 134 wRC+ in 50 G), Cameron Maybin (.285/.364/.494, 11 HR, 32 RBI, 127 wRC+ in 82 G), and Gio Urshela (.314/.355/.534, 21 HR, 74 RBI, 132 wRC+ in 132 G) who was always a great defensive player but never broke out offensively, among others. Urshela stepped in after 2018 AL Rookie of the Year runner-up Miguel Andújar was lost for the season and became one of the Yankees best players the whole season.
The Yankees best defensive player overall was Aaron Judge, even while only playing in 102 games, as he had a 12.6 UZR and 19 DRS.
Even while the Yankees starting pitching was their main issue, and there was surprise when Brian Cashman stayed stagnant at the July 31 trade deadline, it was actually fairly strong especially down the stretch. Their bullpen was very strong, especially with the AL Reliever of the Year, closer Aroldis Chapman. James Paxton, who the Yankees traded their number one pitching prospect at the time, Justus Sheffield, to acquire in the offseason, was key the last few months of the season. After not being the ace pitcher the Yankees traded for during the first half, Paxton broke out in the second half. He went 10-2 with a 3.63 ERA, 1.130 WHIP, 11 SO/9, and a .215 BAA in 14 starts over 74.1 innings pitched, as he won 10 of his last 11 starts.
Luis Severino didn’t make his season debut until September, but was effective, making three starts and going 1-1 with a 1.50 ERA, 3.95 xFIP, and 17 strikeouts over 12 innings pitched. J.A. Happ was effective the final month of the season after struggling at certain points of the season, holding a 1.65 ERA, 0.988 WHIP, 3.11 SO/BB rate, and .188 BAA, in five games (four of them starts) over 27.1 innings.
Chapman saved 37 games in 42 chances and held a 2.21 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, .182 BAA, and struck out over 13 batters per nine innings. The Yankees bullpen as a whole held a 4.15 xFIP, 1.32 WHIP, .239 BAA, 75.2% LOB%, and struck out over 10 batters per nine innings.
What Went Wrong
The main reason the Yankees lost in the ALCS against the Astros was not because of their pitching that was a big struggling point throughout the season, but their failure to hit with runners in scoring position, but more specifically, their failure to hit in the most important spots in a game. This was something they were very good at throughout the regular season which led to their AL East Championship. But in that ALCS, they hit a brick wall of the Astros top pitching. They had plenty of chances, and actually had a higher BA (.214 to .179), OBP (.289 to .281), SLG (.383 to .318), and OPS (.673 to .600) than the Astros, and even a higher BA with RISP than the Astros, .172 to .109. In total, the Yankees went 6-for-35 with RISP and left 42 runners on base, while the Astros left 45. The Yankees simply did not capitalize on the Astros’ same failure to score more runs. A common misconception among some of Yankees Twitter after the series was that the pitching and the bullpen blew the games and the series, which is technically true. But if the Yankees capitalized on even a quarter or more of their chances, they most likely win the series. Chapman did throw a hanging slider to Jose Altuve when he very easily could and should have been walked, which led to Chapman smirking in disbelief as it found its way into the seats to end the game and the series. But Chapman isn’t even put into that situation if the Yankees capitalize on their chances. The Astros hit statistically worse, but hit at the best times, so the series really boiled down to chance like flipping a coin. We knew that was how the series was going to go, the teams are so evenly matched, that it was going to be a tossup no matter what.
Impending Free Agents
The Yankees have already locked up one potential free agent, in Chapman, deciding against opting out and adding an extra year to his deal, worth $18 million. Didi Gregorious is set to be a free agent as the Yankees didn’t give him a qualifying offer; I don’t expect him to be back next season even after his booming grand slam in the ALDS. Brett Gardner, Dellin Betances, Austin Romine, Cameron Maybin, Edwin Encarnacion, and Cory Gearrin are also set to be free agents. Of those six, I expect the Yankees to bring back Gardner, Betances, and Romine and let the others walk. Encarnacion would have been owed $20 million next year but the Yankees declined that option, Maybin was a great presence but the outfield is already crowded (especially if Gardner is back), and there are already enough bulk arm options better than Gearrin. Betances only pitched to two batters this season, so I don’t expect him to get too many other looks elsewhere and I think he will be back on a team-friendly deal. Romine is a solid back-up to Gary Sanchez and the Yankees will definitely try hard to get him back and Gardner is a great veteran leader who had a solid year. I expect him back on another one-year deal, possibly two.
Other than the Yankees impending free agents, the Yankees will be mentioned among a lot of the big-name free agents on the market. They will definitely try to go after Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, the biggest free-agent pitchers, and possibly Anthony Rendon, among others. They could also make some trades for pitching, either way, they will be constantly trying to improve the team. Cole or Strasburg would be huge for them, but if last year is any indication, they may fall short of giving them their expected deals and go for more second and third-tier pitchers like Shelby Miller or Tanner Roark. I really have no idea how the offseason will play out, but just hope for it to not completely drag like last season.
2020 Players to Watch
It will be exciting to see how LeMahieu and Torres build off their very impressive seasons and I could see both of them putting up MVP-level seasons in 2020. Aaron Judge will look to stay healthy and put up a season like his rookie year, while Giancarlo Stanton looks to stay healthy as well and be the MVP winner he is used to being. It will be interesting to see what happens to Andújar and Urshela when Andújar is back healthy. Urshela is the much better defensive third baseman and has the bat now too, so Andújar could be expendable. Paxton and Tanaka are entering the final years on their contracts, so it will be important for them to have solid seasons to build on their resumes. Most of the players to watch will be whether or not they can actually stay healthy with all the injuries they had this season. Aaron Hicks is another one of those players. Mike Tauchman will look to be a key bench player and Luke Voit will look to improve from a mediocre season. Mike Ford will be a solid backup to Voit.
The Yankees had everything going against them this season, dealing with the aforementioned 39 IL stints, but still won the AL East. The expectations before all the injuries were very high, but after the injuries, they overcame all the odds. Aaron Boone was named as an AL Manager of the Year finalist and he was a huge reason for their success. For the Yankees to get over the hump and get back to the World Series for the first time in a decade (only second decade they didn’t make it), they will need better pitching and starters who can go more than three innings in a playoff series. Even with their solid bullpen, they can’t rely on it as much as they did, because then they get overworked. They should also look for more hitters like LeMahieu who just look to make contact and not go homer-or-bust. More lefty bats would also be a plus. The Yankees will be full World Series or bust mode in 2020, but that’s really nothing new. Just now it will be even more expected when they have a full, healthy team.
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Main Credit Image: Embed from Getty Images