New York Yankees great Yogi Berra famously liked to say, "It's getting late early out there." It feels like it's getting late early for the Yankees right now, who are off to their worst start in 30 years.
New York lost to the Atlanta Braves 4-1 at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night and moved to 6-11—dead last in the AL East. The last time the club started the season this badly was in 1991. This two-game midweek matchup was once billed as a potential World Series preview, but the Braves also find themselves at the bottom of the NL East.
It was a frigid night in the Bronx. The temperature briefly dipped below 40 degrees after an afternoon of thunderstorms. It was a sign of cold bats and turbulent times to come.
The Yankees looked lifeless at the plate. They mustered only four hits off Braves right-hander Ian Anderson and five total. Maybe the upstate New York native is conditioned for pitching in the cold, or maybe the Yankees fell flat.
There was a clear lack of hustle and no sense of urgency. Gleyber Torres illustrated this in the seventh inning when he squibbed one in front of the plate on a checked swing and jogged to first base instead of trying to sprint to beat the throw from catcher Travis d'Arnaud.
"It was a check swing, and in that moment, really I didn't know if it was fair or foul," Torres said in his postgame Zoom press conference. "I didn't see the ball well, and I started to run late. I can put a little more effort running to first base."
Manager Aaron Boone said he would speak to Torres about the play, but he made it clear he was unhappy with his 24-year-old shortstop.
"I think anytime you have that kind of situation where a guy has got to get off the mound, you've got to get after him," Boone said over Zoom. "I think initially, in his mind he was probably thinking foul ball right away and then in his mind it was like, 'Oh no, I've got to get going.' And then you're a little late. So that's got to get a little bit better, obviously."
Boone is doing what every good manager does and protecting his embattled players publicly while also holding them accountable. He says he sees "guys in the fight right now grinding away," and he's trying to manage their frustrations.
"It's on all of us to make sure we're not only locked in—which I know we are—but also, while you're taking lumps and getting beat up a little bit to make sure your mindset is strong, but also positive," Boone said. "Especially when we're talking about guys that have really strong track records."
The World Series is never won or lost in April, when most of the time it's still too cold in the Northeast for anyone to really function. But a bad April can force a team to play catch-up the rest of the season. The Yankees are digging themselves into a giant hole, and they're going to have to slug their way out of it.
The only problem is: They're not slugging. Forget slugging. They're not hitting at all.
What was supposed to be one of the league's best offenses has the worst OPS in baseball (.630). Their .251 batting average on balls in play is second-to-last in the American League and third-to-last in MLB. Pinstripe hitters are getting walks at a 10.9 percent clip, and they aren't striking out excessively (24.2 percent K rate), so this would suggest that they aren't getting hard contact when the ball is put in play.
Statcast numbers back up that conclusion: Their 7.7 barrel percentage is toward the middle of the league, and their 38.1 hard hit percentage is toward the bottom.
"We're just not producing as a whole, and we're not doing our job," outfielder Aaron Judge said over Zoom on Wednesday night. "Some nights, a couple guys will pick it up and nobody else will support them. It's about getting us clicking on the same page and going back to doing what we do best, which is wearing down pitchers."
There will likely be some regression to the mean for a team full of heavy hitters. The ball will start flying out of the park when the weather warms. And at some point, first baseman Luke Voit (torn meniscus) will return, which will help with the run-scoring woes.
But the lack of offense is exposing all of the other inefficiencies. This team was built to hit enough to be able to overcome those inefficiencies, but it's tough to get past a porous infield defense and mediocre starting pitching when runs aren't being scored.
FanGraphs ranks the Yankees 26th in defensive efficiency. There is little starting pitching depth behind ace Gerrit Cole. Reclamation projects like Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon still can't go deep into games and probably won't be able to for another month or so. Luckily, the Yankees have a strong bullpen, but overtaxing the relief corps now could pose future problems.
The optics are bad, and the fans are mad. They threw baseballs on the field during a series against the Tampa Bay Rays over the weekend, a dangerous act that only made them look spoiled and entitled, and they started chants of "Fire Boone" on Wednesday night.
The perceived lack of spending has to be irksome for a fanbase conditioned to think that this team will just lay out more money than all of the others. After all, this is the New York Yankees. This is supposed to be the best club money can buy. That title now goes to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Boone might be the first Yankees manager since Stump Merrill to start a season 6-11, but firing a manager who's popular with struggling players would do little good. General manager Brian Cashman built this team, and it will be on him to fill the holes as the season is played—though it will be tough with how close the club is to the $210 million luxury-tax threshold (less than $3 million away, per FanGraphs).
If Cashman can convince owner Hal Steinbrenner to go over, maybe he'll swing a trade for Colorado Rockies shortstop Trevor Story to reunite him with his former double play partner, DJ LeMahieu. Maybe Cashman can convince the Rockies, a club in a state of disarray, to eat enough salary to make it feasible. Torres' minus-15 career defensive runs save at the position are very telling.
Or, maybe he can acquire a starting pitcher.
Fans see a championship window open, and they want the Yankees to take advantage of it by going over the threshold.
What Boone can do is shake up the lineup. He can bench Torres to send a message about his lack of hustle. He can give a slumping Aaron Hicks a pause.
That kind of juggling is needed to keep it from getting too late too early in the Bronx.
"I believe in our guys. I know who they are. I know we're gonna mash," Boone said. "It's definitely frustrating when you're going through it, but as far as, is it hard to stay positive? No, not at all, because I know we're walking out there with heavy artillery each and every night.
"We've just got to unlock it right now. And we will."