The Yankees Are Losing for All the Old, Familiar Reasons

George Steinbrenner was a tyrant and a meddler, but mostly he was a lousy owner—and the struggling 2016 Yankees are all too much like Steinbrenner's worst teams.

by Steven Goldman
May 3 2016, 4:37pm

Photo by Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

New York Yankees third baseman Chase Headley, coming off a second bad year in the past three, is hitting .156 with a .156 slugging percentage, so it's natural for the Yankees to cast about for his replacement. What a bad team does in this situation, however, is look at its schedule and its bench, and then decide that Ronald Torreyes, picked up on a waiver claim in February, is just what the lineup needs.

The Yankees are currently a bad team. They have lost five consecutive games and are presently 8-15, a record that puts them on a pace to go 56-106. Their April winning percentage was the third lowest by a Yankees team in over a hundred years and the lowest by any edition to play at least 20 games in the initial month of the season. Of the six Yankees teams that had sub-.400 winning percentages at the outset of the season, some rebounded—the 1984 Yankees had the best record in baseball in the second half; the 1985 team won 97 games, and the 2007 team 94—but just one made the postseason, where it promptly expired.

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These Yankees probably won't be this bad all season, and at least some of their veterans will recover with the bat. That's far from saying they'll be good or winning—both in the being victorious more often than not, and in the being attractive senses of the word. For one thing, the defense has reached the point of crisis. Through Sunday, the Yankees ranked last in the American League in defensive efficiency (the percentage of balls in play turned into outs), third worst in batting average allowed on ground balls (.270 versus a league average of .241), and second worst in batting average allowed on fly balls (.236 versus .172). The Yankees seem to have a few too many designated hitters in the field right now, and they're locked into Alex Rodriguez at DH.

It's worth noting how improvement on defense can dramatically improve a team's results. Last year, the Indians were 47-54 through July 30, at which point they moved Lonnie Chisenhall from third base to right field. Chisenhall hit reasonably well out in the pasture, averaging .294/.359/.412 in 53 games, but this was offset by the poor hitting of his replacements at third base, particularly Giovanny Urshela, who hit .186/.255/.287 the rest of the way. Nevertheless, the Indians went 31-22 after the change. Urshela played solid enough defense at third, but in taking over from guy-with-a-bat Brandon Moss in right, Chisenhall was a revelation. The Indians had other things going for them, of course, but the defensive swap surely played a part in the team's transformation.

Moves like this, as well as adding some youth to a lineup that is presently, on balance, the oldest in the majors at 31.8 years, are what will revive the Yankees, if not this year then in the future. Keening for the departed George M. Steinbrenner III—"If only George was alive, the team wouldn't be losing," etc., yawn, etc.—will not. (Yes, there are 2016 examples. No, I'm not going to link to them.) Praying to George is a bit like Archie and Edith Bunker singing, "We could use a man like Herbert Hoover again" over the opening credits of All in the Family back in the 1970s. You're nostalgic for a saturnine, scowling leader of the past whose methods, if they ever indeed worked, would be dated and ineffective now. You're also more desperate than you know.

When it hasn't been your day, your week, your month, or even your year, and also you're Chase Headley. Photo by Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

I hate to bring all this up, but I lived through fans routinely chanting, "George sucks" at the Stadium, and those fans weren't wrong or unappreciative. The guy spent on his team, as you would expect a non-Wilpon New York owner to do, but he hardly ruled wisely.

It's odd, this hankering for a "he made the trains run on time" Steinbrenner, since he never, not once, oversaw a midseason youth movement that was executed with anything like sincerity or success. In 1984, after the Detroit Tigers ended the AL East race in April, the Yankees turned over a few spots to younger players like Dennis Rasmussen and Mike Pagliarulo. In 1990, when the team again needed to age down, Steinbrenner was busy fighting a lifetime ban—not that that year's particular example of an in-season redo was to anyone's credit, as we'll see in a moment.

No, Steinbrenner had three primary methods for improving his team: 1) add more veterans, 2) fire the manager, and 3) bitch incessantly, publicly and privately, about how he was being let down. You can judge the effectiveness of this regime by all zero of the postseason appearances the Yankees made from the time the team lost the 1981 World Series to when it lost the 1995 League Division Series. The problem was, Steinbrenner had absorbed all the wrong lessons from his team's successes from 1976 through 1981.

Counting each Billy Martin administration as a discrete manager, the Yankees had 21 changes of skipper beginning in 1973 and ending in 1993. They had midseason manager changes in nine of those seasons, including two in 1982, the Yankees' own year of three presidents. As good as Martin was at galvanizing a team in the short term, it was mostly flailing.

In the 1970s, Steinbrenner and Gene Paul piled up the team with veterans (whether via trade or free agency) and got three pennants and two championships out of it. Just because something works once doesn't mean it will always work, and it didn't. When you play no one but veterans, you just get old. When you blow all your first-round draft picks to sign those veterans—and the Yankees forfeited their first-rounder every year from 1979-1983 and 1986-1989, and in four of those years also punted their second-round pick—you end up with 40-year-old pitchers who throw like they're 80 and no one behind them. And to fix that, you got moments that were half whistling-in-the-dark bravado, half delusion born of desperation, the owner saying, "Lou, I just won you the pennant: I got you Steve Trout."

Perfect. Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Once the core of the 1976-81 team began to age out, the patch-with-fattening-oldsters strategy and some completely unforeseen Hall of Fame-level work by Don Mattingly—the guy was a 19th-round draft pick, remember—kept the team afloat for a while, but the engine finally clogged in the late '80s and died altogether in 1989. It was only after Steinbrenner was temporarily removed by Fay Vincent that Gene Michael got a chance to run the franchise sensibly and the team took off again.

Steinbrenner was a different guy after his suspension. Mostly absent from Yankee Stadium, he was a profane voice on the phone from Tampa, where he maintained his own court, a second power center from those involved with the day-to-day of the team in New York that often pulled in a different direction. Steinbrenner's sons have taken over the business, but several key members of the executive team remain, and the focus has primarily swung back to free agents and veterans. Perhaps the worst mistake of several in this regard was re-signing thirtysomethings Alex Rodriguez and C.C. Sabathia to lengthy contract extensions after they opted out following the 2007 and 2011 seasons, respectively. Instead of saying, "Thank you for your service" and letting another club pay them for their declining years, the Yankees reverted to Steinbrennerian type.

Here's the problem with a sudden youth movement when you don't cultivate young players right along: there's no youth to speak of, not really. The 1990 season was a case in point. When the Yankees finished the first two months of the 1990 season at 17-27, they decided to turn to the farm. "You're doing what now?" the farm replied. During June and July they called up outfielder Oscar Azocar, first baseman Kevin Maas, and catcher/Ronco slicer-dicer Jim Leyritz. Propagandists immediately christened them "the Baby Bombers," despite the fact that they were 25, 25, and 26, respectively. The babies' advent was so successful the team didn't return to the postseason for another five years.

Leyritz could catch, play the corners (though none of them particularly well), and hit left-handed pitching, and so had some value as a reserve. Maas racked up home runs at a record pace for a while and then basically never hit again, and Azocar ... Azocar was special. A converted pitcher who was never able to learn the strike zone, Azocar rarely struck out, but he also never walked. His career line of .226/.248/.296 includes 460 plate appearances, 36 strikeouts, and 12 walks, two of which were intentional. After 31 games in the majors, he was hitting .304/.302/.448; yes, his OBP was lower than his batting average, because he had zero walks in 126 PAs. The next day, Azocar took his first free pass. Something in the cosmos tore. He hit .169 the rest of the way and his remaining career was brief.

Luis Severino, good luck my dude. Photo by Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The system isn't that bad now, but unless outfielder Aaron Judge solves his strike-zone problems, help may be some distance away. It wouldn't be fruitful to review the Yankees' history in the June draft except to note that "fruitful" is probably the last word to apply to the topic. Suffice it to say that the 2009-14 draft classes that might have rejuvenated the current team were (with the possible exception of 2013) lacking, particularly in terms of position players. The worst year was probably 2010, a willful disaster, which started with out-of-nowhere first-round pick Cito Culver, who is presently hitting .136 at Double-A Trenton. He has career averages of .226/.306/.312 in over 600 minor league games and will be starring in the Bronx no sooner than the sixth of Neveruary. International scouting and/or spending has been more successful, bringing Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, and prospects Gary Sanchez and Jorge Mateo, among others. It hasn't nearly been enough.

And so the reflexive beseeching of the divine George, who would have "made something happen" despite the fact that he never had the patience or foresight to make happen the one thing that might help this Yankees team. The combination of cash infusions from regional sports networks and the practice of buying players out of their arbitration and early free agency years has made the veteran pickings in free agency much less attractive, and taking a Steinbrennerian approach to today's free agent scene has resulted in a team that's similarly much less attractive.

Many babies born during the Yankees World Series season of 1996 have already turned 20 this year. They have known just two Yankees managers and one general manager in their lives, not the madness of King George. Billy Martin never existed for them, and the days when Steinbrenner's mind games resulted, in the most passive and non-correlative sense possible, in the 1978 championship is as far away from us, and as relevant, as the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and eight percent inflation.

The worst part about all this is the knowledge that the next injury the Yankees have, they're not going to call up someone in his twenties from Scranton. They're going to pull the 35-year-old Nick Swisher, .204/.291/.326 over the past two years, out of force of habit and a dearth of better options. In the meantime, there's always Ronald Torreyes to the rescue.

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